Thursday, December 03, 2009

Girls Write Now

If you read litblogs, you’ll have heard of Girls Write Now. Lauren Cerand is the Board Chair. Tayari Jones and Maud Newton are on the board. So am I. Truly, it is humbling and thrilling to be in the company of such inspiring women. But it’s the girls who inspire us all.

If you don’t know about Girls Write Now—this brilliant non-profit that pairs NYC high school girls with women writers—or if you haven’t yet given them a little Christmas/Hanukah/Eid/year-end donation, now is the moment for this amazing little non-profit is trying to raise $50,000 this holiday season, to keep their programs running and to expand them to serve more girls in need.

You can click right here and make an express donation through the Network for good.

At Girls Write Now's Holiday Soiree last month, I spent a festive evening with many of you at the Center for Fiction, where we each reached out to friends and family, writing letters for the Annual Holiday Appeal. I took this time because I believe, to my core, that helping girls write will change the world. Those letters have elicited a warm response, and to date we've raised $18,706. I wrote 34 letters that night to friends (and won the prize for the most letters written!); so far those letters have brought $625 to Girls Write Now. Every little bit counts.

Girls Write Now is on the rise. You may have heard that on November 4, Brooklyn high school senior Tina Gao joined founder and executive director Maya Nussbaum in accepting the 2009 Coming Up Taller Award from the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, distinguishing Girls Write Now as one of the top 15 after-school arts and humanities-based programs in the country.

I came to my first Girls Write Now event to hear Tayari Jones and Janice Erlbaum read from their work; I stayed--and went on to join the Advisory Board--for the girls. As a Virginia Woolf Scholar, I guessed that other Woolfians and feminists might respond to the power of the mission, too, so last spring I made Girls Write Now the beneficiary of our silent auction. So moved were the 200+ attendees that we were able to raise more than $2,000.

When people hear about Girls Write Now, they give to Girls Write Now. It's as simple as that. Won't you please consider giving and help me spread the word?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

H.O.W. Holiday Costume Party!!!

I'm on the board for the H.O.W. Literary Journal, an exciting new journal that is also a charity dedicated to helping orphans worldwide.

On December 6, they're having a holiday party with readings by Willie Perdomo and Tao Lin and the proceeds benefit teens in the Safe Space Program.

My costume involves peacock feathers.

Tickets are only $20 and drinks are free from 6-7. Click on the link to purchase.

What's not to like?

H.O.W. Journal wants to see you
on Sunday, Dec 6th, 6pm - 9pm

at Macao Trading Co.
311 Church Street, NYC 10013
$15 advance tickets, $20 at the door
Funds raised at this event will be used to start an art, music and film-making program for young adults at Safe Space. For more info. and to buy tickets please see below.

Readings by Tao Lin and Willie Perdomo

Free Drinks from 6-7pm!

Holiday Costume Contest

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Where I've been, etc...

It seems like I'm gone, but I'm not.

I will be back.

See, usually my blog is a welcome dose of sanity during a busy semester. This semester is no less busy, but approaching I see the heartening sight of January and with January comes A SABBATICAL.

So, I am simultaneously very very busy and looking forward to regrouping with you all when I really have a moment to compose myself.

Until then, I will be grading papers.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Jessa Crispin likes Sarah Hall, too

From the NPR book blog: a strongly positive review of How to Paint a Dead Man by Jessa Crispin.

I'm still surprised that more people in the Hall roundtable didn't love it as much as I did.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Best Essays, a request

In earlier days of blogging, people used to publish requests for info all the time. (I am trying to avoid the ugly coinage "bleg.") Now, I guess, that's what Twitter is for. But I am going old school today to ask you to tell me your favorite essay or two these days.

I'm nominating essays for the new edition of the Norton Reader, a commonly used freshman writing textbook. (It's the one I use, too.) I'm doing my homework, rest assured, but I can't read everything and I would love to hear the essays that are thrilling you these days.

Here are some of the things I'm thinking about: Though I was a bit disappointed by Rebecca Walker's collection, I love Dan Savage's "DJ's Homeless Mommy." I liked the essays by ZZ Packer and loved Min Jin Lee's, but they speak from such a position of privilege that they really don't go in a freshman textbook, I don't think. Packer is mordantly funny about having consistently been mistaken for her son's nanny (he is--or was--much fairer than she, having a white father); but Packer is so quickly dismissive of the Midwest that I think she'd lose huge chunks of her audience on a throwaway line. Min Jin's essay is deeply moving but it's about her awkward attachment to her nanny, a woman who is, like Lee herself, an immigrant. I just think the social complexities of New York might not translate broadly.

I'm hoping to find something in Kenny Fries' book. I bought Dwayne Betts's memoir of his time in prison in the hopes that it would lend itself to excerpting; what I've read has been riveting. I have a lead on a great Solnit essay. Ander Monson has a couple great essays, so I'm having trouble choosing which to put forward.

In the end, I'll pick twelve and the editors will take, oh, one or two.

If my list doesn't jog your memory, maybe Maud's will. If you have a winner in mind, I'd love love love to hear about it!

Sunday, October 04, 2009

West Coast Hornby/McSweeney's Event!

A former student writes from her internship at 826 Valencia/McSweeney's to say that I should tell all my readers about this event: a special screening with Q&A by Nick Hornby of his new film. I think I should:
a special advance screening of
an education
a new film written and produced by nick hornby with an in-person Q&a with the author
wednesday, october 7, 2009 O 8:30 p.m.
$30 for tickets + a free book

The screening will be held at the Embarcadero Center Cinemas, Promenade Level, located at One Embarcadero Center in San Francisco.
purchase tickets online here:
Directions and theater information are here:
Further questions? Email or call (415) 642-5684
$30 is a lot, but when you throw in a book, it's a great deal. I don't really know if I have a lot of readers in San Francisco, but if I do, here's a great-sounding fun event for next week.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Clintons at the Minetta Tavern

My dad and I were utterly charmed by Frank Bruni’s review of the new Minetta Tavern. So charmed that we had the same idea: this would be the perfect spot for our Saturday night dinner in September, my birthday dinner. My parents still live in Seattle, where I grew up, so these twice-yearly visits of theirs to New York City are much anticipated on all sides. They revolve around eating and we have made it our custom to get a babysitter on Saturday and go out someplace really fancy. The Minetta Tavern would be a bit of a break from tradition--it’s a steak house in the West Village—but Bruni made it sound so fun and fabulous that it seemed worth it.

When the only reservation we could get was for 6:00, we hesitated: do we really want to settle for such an unfashionable time? After all, the city has many, many other grand restaurants. My dad and I held fast and, since this was for my birthday, I held the day.

That block of MacDougal Street is still caught in the 80s: falafel shops and beer dives, tourists eating lousy looking nachos, thinking they’re experiencing the West Village. My husband and I walked around the block to see Il Mulino, where Presidents Clinton and Obama had lunched a few weeks back. That was exciting and funny, too: on the one hand, Il Mulino is tucked away. On the other hand, it’s across the street from NYU law. Not hard for them to find, we thought. The Minetta Tavern inside leaves the falafel far behind; it is full of old world charm: just as lovely and hip as Frank Bruni promised.

We walked in at 6:00 and couldn’t be seated right away. It was packed and the energy was young and vibrant. Passing from the bar to the dining room, I overheard one waiter/manager say to another: “San Francisco chef and restaurant owner; position three.” It seemed we were in a happening spot. Little did we know. When our waitress came to take our order, the hostess and maitre d’ were opening and shutting the side door; we could see red flashing lights; our waitress was distracted.

Five minutes later, we could see why: Hillary Clinton came in with two aides.

That was exciting, but it was even more amazing when, a few minutes after that, Chelsea and her boyfriend arrived.

When, ten minutes after that we heard a familiar voice say “Sorry I’m late,” as the Big Dog himself sidled into the booth.

It was very, very exciting! And distracting. And fun. Hillary Clinton looked beautiful—really happy and rested and lovely in a pretty ivory jacket with boucle details on the lapels. Chelsea is very, very pretty, too, in a black sleeveless tank and a gorgeous necklace of gold loops.

It was hard not to gawk or ask for an autograph. We did keep track of their orders—beet salads for the Clintons to start, burger for Chelsea and fish for Bill at dinner. Not a lot of wine at all. (The four of us, on the other hand cruised through a bottle of champagne and 2 reds.) I wanted to meet Hillary Clinton especially, but once it was a family dinner any intrusion seemed cruel and wrong. We giggled that I should start mentioning my days at Wellesley and Yale really loudly, but, in the end, we let them eat in peace. So did everyone else.

That is, until Rob Reiner came in with his family. (I know!!!) Meathead, as I still love to call him, greeted the Clintons and President Clinton greeted the Reiner family while Reiner talked with Hillary.

(Turns out, there was a tiny little Streisand concert at the Village Vanguard last night…)

It is very strange to think of the Clintons as people, to see that they are real. Hillary’s charisma was palpable from the moment she entered: she was powerful, kind, beautiful, and self-posessed. Bill, in tattersall and a blue blazer, was more like charisma in retirement: stunning, but in repose. I have been thinking, this fall, that maybe I’m becoming a New Yorker (with a Jersey zip code) but this knocked me right back. I was utterly star-struck.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Still Three: Big Yesterday

This is perhaps my favorite coinage yet: big yesterday for a while ago.

In the car
3 y.o.: Mommy, mommy, yesterday, big yesterday we went there [McDonald’s] with Miss Jackie [the babysitter].
Mom: Oh, that’s nice, honey.
6 y.o. [aggrieved, righteous]: We did not go there yesterday. Miss Jackie didn’t even come yesterday. She took us there a long time ago.
3 y.o. [also aggrieved, righteous]: Yeah, I said big yesterday.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Childhood Reading at Three

Mom: Ok, girls, you can read for a little while and then I’ll come back and turn out the light.
3 y.o.: Mommy! Mommy! (sotto voce, molto nervoso) I can’t read.
Mom: That’s ok, baby, just look at the pictures.
3 y.o.: (happy again) Ok, mommy.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Gertrude Stein’s Honey Cakes

I’m reading Stein for the first time in ages. I still am not sure that I love it, but she has her moments. I’m also back on WeightWatchers and a little bit hungry. (You have to be a little bit hungry, alas, otherwise, you’re not, ahem!, losing the weight.) I’m sure that my hunger and the mental image of the wonderfully upholstered Stein made this even better, so get into your hungriest frame of mind for this, from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which made me laugh out loud:
They told Vollard that they wanted to buy a Cezanne portrait. In those days practically no big Cezanne portraits had been sold. Vollard owned almost all of them. … There were about eight to choose from and the decision was difficult. They had often to go and refresh themselves with honey cakes at Fouquet’s.
Fantastic, isn’t it? The language of need in the realm of wonderful luxury. Oh, so hard is the decision of which Cezanne to buy! Oh, so badly do I need more cake! Shall we buy the one of the man? I’m not sure, Leo, let’s go get another piece of honey cake…

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A. A. Milne, women, and moving through modernity

I’m working on a little something on Woolf and taxicabs—an outgrowth of the Woolf and the City conference--and so have been thinking about women moving through the modern city: all the dangers and possibilities of walking, bus-riding, and taxis that the modern city suddenly opened up for women. Think about it: for centuries, moving through the city, for a respectable woman of the working, middle or upper middle class was severely circumscribed: to and from work, to and from the market, chaperoned or subject to being accosted when alone.

This led me, through a circuitous route (with, clearly, a detour to my children) to a favorite poem from my childhood, A. A. Milne’s “Disobedience”:
James James
Morrison Morrison
Weatherby George Dupree
Took great
Care of his Mother,Though he was only three.
I remember finding this poem deeply upsetting and moving as a child. Once you ask yourself what kind of mother would want to leave her child, it’s not a very far leap to imagine the heretofore unthinkable: my mommy might want to leave me for an afternoon. It’s not just that she’s a bad mother, careless about babysitters and urban danger, but that she has desires that are not about caring for her children. The poem seems to lift a veil from adult life.

And then, there is that strange notion that James “Took great | Care of his Mother, | Though he was only three.” I was very aware that I needed caring for as a young child and I see that same awareness in my children now: they remind me (as if I needed reminding) constantly of what they can and cannot do on their own, what they need help with. Assertions of “I do it myself” are followed, in mere seconds by “Can you help me, mommy?” Surely, then, I thought, this poem must be one of my first encounters with literary irony.

So, I thought, how would I explain the puzzle of the poem to my daughters? Defining “irony” is, clearly, the least promising route, so the idea must be approached through questions: can a three-year-old take care of his mother? Isn’t it really the other way around?

Or is it? (I give you my thoughts as they came to me, as Woolf says.) The first stanza continues:
James James
Said to his Mother,
"Mother", he said, said he;
"You must never go down to the end of the town,
if you don't go down with me."
This is a masterfully ironic patriarchal poem: a little ditty about a (bad) woman chafing under the demands of home and childcare and paying the price with her disappearance. I'm not fully sure where Milne's sympathies lie, but he nails the dilemma. Its humor and power and creepiness comes from the way in which Milne captures the tyranny of children and family responsibility. In a way, James does “take care” of his mother, for the demands of motherhood circumscribe a mother’s desires. Suddenly, a once taken-for-granted freedom—like running an errand when one wants—becomes a brazen liberty. When I am home alone with my kids, I cannot just run out and get milk—even if the store is only a block away. So, yes, James maybe does take care of his mother for, in making women into primary caregiver and then in setting up small households consisting in nuclear families only, we make it impossible for women to “go down to the end of the town” if they don’t go down with their children.

Monday, September 14, 2009

How to Paint a Dead Man, by Sarah Hall

I may not be here, but you can find me here, participating in Ed's roundtable on Sarah Hall's lovely new novel of four interconnected narratives, How to Paint a Dead Man.

Click to read my thoughts and, more to the point, those of Sarah Hall herself.

Then, if you're interested, click back through to read the prior parts. The roundtable is long, sure, but it was really interesting and it's full of smart and funny--and varied--opinions about the book.

It's a lovely book, very accomplished, moving and strange.

As for me, I'm buried in all the transitions that come from a new school year for all four of us: four people in this family, four different schools; three first days. If ever a woman were working the second shift, it is I. But all is well and we'll be back to our irregular schedule soon enough, no doubt.

Monday, August 24, 2009

More Glories of Three

Every time my daughter sees or hears the word “three” she puffs out her chest “I’m three!” The three-month-old dog, the three blueberries she needs to eat to get a popsicle, three o’clock.

She loves to ride the elevator, which she calls “the alligator.”

We have a bath towel with a little hood on it. These are common silly middle class things: you wrap the child in a hood and she looks like an animal. I put the elephant towel on her the other night and suddenly she was reciting a little poem I’d never heard, complete with hand gestures:
The elephant goes like this and like that.
He’s very tall and very fat.
He has no fingers, but he sure has toes.
And, goodness gracious! What a nose!
I wish I could describe how it came pouring out of her. It wasn’t fast; her concentration was intense, but she was possessed with the need to recite the whole thing, pausing, utterly still, to recollect the next word. When she was done, she didn’t even look at me for praise. She just looked down, clearly amazed and deeply proud that she had done it. I waited, burst into applause, and she beamed.

Last night, reading Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, she was deeply skeptical of the blue horse: “Horses can be white or brown or gray or black. But not blue, right?” Then, the second time through, she noticed a second oddity: “Birds don’t be red!”

Oh yes, they be, honey. Yes, they be.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

How to Write a Fan Letter

I’m taking some notes on Woolf’s letters. I find her recommending Thomas Hardy’s poems to an old friend in December, and then, in January, writing to Hardy himself, thanking him for his poems and for all his books.

Hardy was born in 1840; Woolf, in 1882. In 1915, she had written only one novel and many, many reviews. So, she approaches him very much as a young writer approaching an elder. The letter is brief and gracious: she has a clear pretext (Satires of Circumstance [1914] includes a poem to her father, Leslie Stephen [1832-1904]), but it’s the last line that I love:
I write only to satisfy a very old desire, and not to trouble you to reply.
So graceful and grateful. That’s a real fan letter.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


More than half way through Mrs. Dalloway, Elizabeth enters her mom’s room to tell her she and her history tutor, Miss Kilman, are going out to run an errand. Unhappy and jealous, Miss Kilman stands in the hall, seething.

Miss Kilman resents the degradation of poverty, degradation that forces her to take jobs from rich people like the Dalloways. Still, she remembers, Richard had been kind.

Lady Bruton can barely stand Hugh Whitbread. Nonetheless, she remembers that she needs to tolerate him since he had been kind.

At the very beginning of the novel, the florist remembers that Mrs. Dalloway had been kind years ago, very kind.

Clarissa’s aunt is kind to Peter, since he gave her a rare flower, and in spite of his horrible lovesick rudeness.

Rezia desperately searches the faces of Septimus’s doctors, of strangers on the street, for signs of kindness.

There is an argument about kindness running through this novel: about how it matters, about how it binds us together, about how it papers over all kinds of differences and resentments. It’s hard to articulate without sounding sentimental.

But these are the sorts of patterns one begins to notice on the fifteenth or twentieth time through a book…

Monday, August 17, 2009

Even More on Jessie Fauset

Ethelene Whitmire, a professor at U-Wisconsin, Madison, popped into the comments to note that Fauset’s fourth and last novel is being reissued by Rutgers this fall. Thank you! It sounds like a darker—more realistic?--version of There is Confusion, edited by Cherene Sherrard-Johnson (also of UW):
Comedy: American Style, Jessie Redmon Fauset’s fourth and final novel, recounts the tragic tale of a family’s destruction—the story of a mother who denies her clan its heritage. Originally published in 1933, this intense narrative stands the test of time and continues to raise compelling, disturbing, and still contemporary themes of color prejudice and racial self-hatred. Several of today’s bestselling novelists echo subject matter first visited in Fauset’s commanding work, which overflows with rich, vivid, and complex characters who explore questions of color, passing, and black identity.

Cherene Sherrard-Johnson’s introduction places this literary classic in both the new
modernist and transatlantic contexts and will be embraced by those interested in earlytwentieth-century women writers, novels about passing, the Harlem Renaissance, the black/white divide, and diaspora studies. Selected essays and poems penned by Fauset are also included, among them “Yarrow Revisited” and “Oriflamme,” which help highlight the full canon of her extraordinary contribution to literature and provide contextual background to the novel.
I can’t wait to read it.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

There'll Always Be an England

"Through the Brownes Stevie met Mungo and Racy Buxton who lived nearby at Wiveton." Stevie Smith: A Biography (194).

Stevie Smith & Betty Miller

I’m reading Frances Spalding’s biography of Stevie Smith and every chapter brings me a little gasp of excitement. Her Novel on Yellow Paper is a favorite book of mine.

Yesterday’s find was the strong speculation that the woman Orwell bragged about having sex with in a public park was likely Smith.

Here is today’s: Smith was a libelously autobiographical writer. Novel on Yellow Paper begins “Good-bye to all my friends, my beautiful and lovely friends” and she did, indeed lose many friendships over her thinly veiled accounts of marital spats and her confusing frankness (and anti-Semitism) toward her Jewish friends. One such friendship sundered was that with Betty Miller, author of Farewell Leicester Square (another of my discoveries this summer). Smith spent the weekend with the Millers and then commemorated it in a short story portraying the Millers as burdened by the sense of English anti-Semitism, Miller herself as a suppressed wife, and Miller’s son Jonathan (the Jonathan Miller) as a brat.

Betty was not pleased.

I don’t doubt it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

More on Jessie Fauset

If Jessie Redmon Fauset is remembered at all, it is as the author of Plum Bun, which, I suspect, many know vaguely as that other novel about passing that is not Nella Larsen’s Passing. But Fauset (1882-1961) wrote several novels and served as the literary editor of Crisis magazine from 1919 to 1926: the heart of the Harlem Renaissance. Alain Locke may have edited The New Negro (1925), but Fauset must have played a huge role in publishing and promoting the talent of all those writers we know from that anthology.

Though you may not have noticed it, I did: I was unfair to Fauset last week by leading with my criticism of her energetic and ambitious first novel.

Actually, and in spite of its many flaws, I was very moved by the book and I think it’s an amazing novel to revive during the age of Obama.

The plot is unwieldy but full of wonderfully cinematic scenes. If you are a screenwriter in search of material, I recommend mining There is Confusion.

The Marshall family, the four children of Joel Marshall, are the book’s heart. Joel Marshall is a very successful caterer, a self-made man, living in a large prosperous house in Manhattan—at first, in the 50s and, later, in Harlem. Rich as he is, he regrets that his success came in mere catering and hopes for more—for greatness, for ambition, for real intellectual and political achievement, for his children.

Of his four children, only Joanna shares those ambitions and both she and her father are somewhat surprised to find that her talent lies in singing and dancing: once again, the family’s dreams of a new Frederick Douglass or Sojourner Truth are checked by both their talents and the lack of opportunity.

Joanna is one of three young people whose maturation the book details. Her story contrasts with those of Maggie Ellersley, the daughter of a laundress who hopes that marriage to a rich man will raise her from poverty and Peter Bye, the scion of freedmen from Philadelphia, who must overcome his father’s anger and laziness to become the man—and the physician--Joanna deserves to marry.

Part of the book’s failure is also what makes it so continually interesting: Fauset spends a lot of time explaining her world. She has her earnest young people engage in long, DuBois-ian conversations about talent and how best to spend it. They walk the streets of New York, experiencing both freedom and discrimination. Fauset explains the differences between the social mobility of New York—both within the black community and in a tentatively integrating bohemia—and the intense social hierarchies of elite black Philadelphia, where the daughters of freedmen work hard not to aim too high, but simply to remain eligible brides for the appropriate sons.

I had hoped to find a new novel of the Harlem Renaissance to teach this fall, tiring as I have of Larsen. I am really excited about this one, about which I cannot stop thinking

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

First novels, Race, and the MFA

I was about 100 pages into Jessie Redmon Fauset’s There is Confusion (1924) when Short Girls came. Both are great stories of young people striving in the face of racism, but only Nguyen’s is an easy, lovely read. Both Fauset and Nguyen show their characters experiencing and, as important, reflecting on racism. Both women take a deep interest in helping—it does feel like that’s the right verb even though it’s slightly absurd—their female characters find both love and work that will fulfill them.

When I finished Short Girls, I returned to Fauset and, somehow, really got involved in the story and finished it with great pleasure. Still, it cannot be said that this, Fauset’s first novel, is flawless: it’s overplotted, it’s got too many characters; it’s too talky in parts.

I kept thinking about the difference it would have made if Fauset had an MFA. I don’t think MFAs can create talent, but they do seem to help writers prune their manuscripts, think about their audience, focus their purpose. This is a somewhat disheartening conclusion, and I want my literature great more than competent, but, over and over again while reading Fauset, I would think, oh! If some fellow reader, if some instructor, could have helped her smooth that over, edit that out, how much better this book would be.

Amazing the difference that those 80 years have made.

UPDATED to say: What I wanted to add here is that Fauset herself knows this: there is an incredibly affecting scene late in the book. The protagonist has finally gotten her dream job, dancing in a Broadway show. It's an integrated cast and the exposure brings her, for the first time, into a bohemian group of friends, many of them white. She wonders at their accomplishments: how can they have done so much when she's been dancing all this while. Then she thinks back over all the time she's spent overcoming obstacles put in her way by racism: finding the dancing teacher who would teach black students; getting him to agree to a special class when white students refused an integrated one; finding 10 other black dancers to join her, etc. She things ruefully about all she would have done had she not had to beat down her own path.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Short Girls

I remember our neighbors’ pride, the mother’s need to assert her status as hostess while living in a house owned and furnished by the church, and, reading Short Girls I recognized immediately the daughters’ discomfort when the well-meaning family of sponsors shows up at the father’s citizenship ceremony. Somehow, I can’t quite explain it, but I rejoiced inside to hear Nguyen’s explanation of the awkwardness from the inside. Maybe it’s as simply as a relief in the great fact that we have a Vietnamese-American writer who can explain to everyone, even those who haven’t seen it themselves, the utter lack of interest a child might feel in a sponsoring family. I love the honest ingratitude of children, even grown ones.

That citizenship ceremony is the heart of the book and it’s where the separate lives of the Luong sisters reconnect. This book, like Sima’s Undergarments for Women, has a plot structure that is designed to soothe and please: things are a mess at the beginning and you have, from the start, some sense that, somehow, things will improve. The party that we know will bring the sisters together happens a little more than halfway through the book: I loved that I couldn’t predict the aftermath of the book, but that, from the start, I had eager hope for what I knew would be interesting. That is a deeply satisfying kind of story to me these days.

Van Luong is the good sister, an immigration lawyer, but her husband has left her; Linny, the bad girl, is reconsidering her affair with a married man. Since they’re both in their late-twenties, a lot of the plot’s conflict revolves around figuring out a way to find a life partner, but that is not the only thing. I love how Nguyen promotes their search for satisfying careers to equal importance. Linny’s job, designing recipes for “You Did It Dinners,” one of those catering places that helps working mommies assemble casseroles is a wonderful job for a slacker girl: she’s gifted at cooking, but, lord, is this how she’s going to spend her life? Making up non-threatening burrito-bake recipes for other women to assemble? And when Van’s husband blames her for losing a hopeless immigration case, her utter collapse of confidence, too, seems like just the kind of folding of confidence I saw again and again among my ambitious friends at the first big career setback: the decision that, oh well, I really didn’t want to do public service/litigation/inner city teaching, I’ll just settle here.

The novel is mercifully free of faux-exotic details—and mocks those white friends who want them—but there is a deeply realized sense of the Vietnamese community of Michigan, its development, how it revolves around the family that got rich first, how the Luongs, by buying a house a few neighborhoods away, lost touch with its center, how it looks now (in 2003) that some of the children of 1975 have children of their own.

Van is an appealing but hard to know character: there is something deeply private about her; even up to the end, she seems a little unknowable in her studiousness. That meant that it took me a while to feel at home with her—even as I was in the novel’s world from the very first page—a fantastic scene of the young abandoned wife, worrying that she’ll forget the alarm’s code because it’s their wedding date. But, as the novel unfolded, I learned how much stock I was to take in little clues—that Van would never tell us, that Nguyen will never tell us—directly why she became an immigration lawyer, but that, in her poring over post-9/11 rule changes we could infer her deep ethical commitment to working for immigrant rights.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Multicultural in Seattle

Nguyen’s novel showed me a lot about what it might have been like to be on the other side of some of those fleeting friendships I had with Vietnamese kids growing up in Seattle. It got me remembering the first wave of Southeast Asian immigration to our city.

At the far end of our block in Seattle, on our side of the street, there was a modern ranch house, high atop an ivy-covered hill. Two gay men lived there, with a pool and a solarium full of birdcages with mechanical birds. My parents were proud to be square, but they were—and are—kind, tolerant people. Where others might, in those days, have kept their children away from the queeny gay men down the block, we went there from time to time and thought of them as friends. My sister and I sat in the solarium during their drunken Christmas parties, sipping spiked eggnog and listening to the songs of the mechanical birds.

Across the street from them was a beautiful brick Tudor house, usually vacant, and owned by the Episcopal Church. Next to that, a vacant lot. The vacant lot—really, a very meticulously tended lawn with a cluster of trees in the center and a short hill, perfect for rolling down--belonged to the third house in, but we called it “Green Grass Grows” and it was our favorite place to play. Sometimes, the caretaker would come and yell at us, but as long as we didn’t wreck the grass too badly, he tolerated us.

This was Capitol Hill in the 70s: houses from 1905 up against modern ranches, all rendered affordable because of a Boeing bust and white flight.

In 1975, I was 8, and the church (or someone in the church) sponsored a Vietnamese family: the family’s mom had worked in the American Embassy, spoke fluent French and English, and was, naturally, among the first to have to leave. (In my mind, I picture them on the top of the embassy roof, fleeing by helicopter, but that’s just dimly remembered news footage. Still, there was an intense sense of emergency to their story.) They had four children, our age and younger. Those children, living next door to our play spot, the vacant lot, became our friends. We taught them tag and learned not to play t.v. tag with them till they’d learned some t.v. shows.

We went to their house sometimes, and sometimes—though rarely—they came to ours. This was a fragile neighborhood friendship, made harder by the Do’s pride and dislocation, by language and cultural barriers, but the gay men across the street were shocked. They took my mother aside: “Why don’t you send your children to the private school? I can’t believe you send them to that public school with all those C---ks, N----s, and J---s.”

My mom told me what he’d said because she had to explain why we were not friends any more: it wasn’t homophobia that kept us from the gay men’s house, it was her rejection of their extreme racism.

That was a mind-blowing lesson of girlhood.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Short Girls & Serendipity

Google alerts are wonderful things: no sooner do I post a tiny mention of my having enjoyed Olive Kittredge then I get a really lovely email from a publicist, “I know this may seem out of the blue, but Elizabeth Strout blurbed a book and I wonder if by any chance you might be interested? It’s about Vietnamese sisters and the author is a professor at Purdue.”

Wait. Really?

I wrote right back, in spite of my usual efforts to slow down summer correspondence: I am a sister, raising a pair of daughters: I love books about sisters. I grew up in Seattle and, from the fall of Saigon in 1975 to my graduation in from high school, I have known Vietnamese refugees and immigrants. I used to teach at Purdue. What book could be better?

So, Bich Minh Nguyen’s Short Girls arrived up on this gravel road, quick as a whistle. You think you’ve left the city, but we still get the mail here and it doesn’t take long at all.

What a good book. I have a lot more to say about this book, but I’ll save that for another post. It’s a really fine novel and worth a read. In the mean time, you can read more about Nguyen (whose first name is pronounced “bit”—a fitting pun for a 4’11” writer obsessed with height) here and here.

Thursday, July 30, 2009


Six, too, is full of charms. One aspect of being a parent that I most longed to experience, from before I was pregnant, was living with a child old enough to read on her own.

I am now mother to such a child.

It is just as magical and mysterious as I expected. She goes to bed with The BFG and I come into her room at 8 to rouse her and she’s nearly done. What’s next? After reading just a little here and there all spring—Frog and Toad, Junie B. Jones, she has burst into reading the first classics of childhood. So far, this month, she has read The BFG, Half Magic, James and the Giant Peach, the first three books in the My Father’s Dragon series, The Fantastic Mr. Fox. She also read the first 125 pages of Gertrude Stein’s Ida.

She doesn’t much like to talk about her reading, much as I like to hear about it. Still, when I was remarking on this to someone, she asked “How much do you really think she understands?” A good question. So I pressed a little: “What is happening in James and the Giant Peach right now?”

“Well,” she said, “you’ve read it, right? [Yes, in 1972...] So they’re flying over the ocean, but it’s full of sharks who are going to eat the peach, so the silkworm and the spider make all these strings and then they send the earthworm up, but not too high, so that the seagulls will try to eat him. They’re trying to trick the gulls. But they have to be careful so that the gulls don’t eat the earthworm, so the grasshopper holds on tight and pulls him back just in time. Anyway, James takes the little strings and throws them up around the seagulls’ legs. He does this lots and lots of times till there are a whole bunch of seagulls pulling on the peach…”

I think she gets it, don’t you?

As for Ida, I must say, she got about 100 pages deeper than I, but she didn’t have anything to report.

I think she gets Stein, too.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Three is such a lovely age and our three year old is full of charms. This is not a mommy blog, of course, but one of the joys of motherhood is all about the joy of watching a child come into language and that's the reason for this little celebration of three.

She is trying to memorize her favorite song, “Ma-ma-ma-Mexico,” as she calls it, requesting that one track on every possible occasion.

Last night, walking down the gravel road from Grandma’s cottage to ours, she had her blankie on her head. Then she put it around her face like a shawl or a hood: “I be a little girl [gull, in her Jersey accent]; you be da wolf.”

“Roar!” I say.

“No, you be a wolf like a grandma, remember? You lie in da bed. I come to you, right?” And she proceeds to dramatically skip down the road, “La-la-la-la-la.”

I have never read Little Red Riding Hood to her.

It’s such a wonder when they learn things from unknown sources.

And the Jersey accent is, in itself, a source of great merriment. My husband and I were imagining a scene from The Sopranos that would make use of two of her recent expressions:

“Oddawise, it gonna float away” and, upon seeing the night’s green vegetable: “I don’t want no ‘cchini.”

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Summer CD, 2009

I’ve written about our summer cds before. It’s our most durable and original family tradition. (By original, I only humbly mean that it doesn’t come from my side or my husband’s; it’s ours; something that evolved internally.) Every summer, about 2 weeks into our stay upstate, we make a mix of the 20 songs that define the summer; then, we listen to the mix, dance to it, learn it, for the rest of our stay so that we fix the summer’s best memories to music that all four of us come to love. We have five such mixes now and they are in heavy rotation in our house & my mother-in-law’s house all year long.

Having so many means, too, that we have a kind of formula for them. There is usually a song in each of the following categories: summer in the city, even though we spend our Julys in the country (2009: “Benny’s Dispatch” from In the Heights); Spanish (2009: “Sunrise,” also from In the Heights—and a song about learning Spanish and “La Espera”); another song, not in English (2009: “Jai Ho”); songs that reflect the year’s events (2009 has lots of Obama songs, a Michael Jackson song); a song from the Boilermaker (2009: “Get up,” because the funk band was playing that as my husband climbed the race’s hardest hill); some folk; something lounge-y (2009: “Politan”); one (and only one) children’s song (2009: “Little Black Bull” in honor of Pete Seeger’s 90th and because my older girl loves that song).

We had a great time at the Rock the River concert on the 4th of July again so, as with last year, we have songs by performers we saw there. In 2008, it was Amber Rubarth & Joe Purdy. For 2009, Garrison Star, Jay Nash, the Low Stars (Chris Seefried played the show again this year), and also, amazingly, Blue Oyster Cult! It turns out that Joe Bouchard of BOC is from the tiny town of Clayton, NY where we stay all summer. He came and played the show, doing an amazing version of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” with Chris Seefried. How could we resist?

I could tell you more about why each song ended up on the list, but such nattering on grows dull quickly. I will say that the Low Stars cd is beloved of all of us and it was tough to pick which song until “Mexico” came on the car stereo one evening after dinner out. As the men sing, in lovely Crosby-Stills-Nash-Young-esque harmonies their sweet crazy song about “Ma-ma-ma-Mexico / Ma-ma-maria / ma-ma-ma-maybe I / get down do see ya” the toddler started singing along. That combination, of a song about falling in love on a drunken vacation, sung by a 3 year-old, still wee enough that her favorite sound is “ma-ma,” clinched the choice. “Mexico” it is.

Here’s the full list. It’s what we’re listening to now.

Anyway Jay Nash
Sunrise Mandy Gonzalez, Christopher Jackson, & Company
Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours Stevie Wonder
City Of Blinding Lights U2
Hey, Girl Garrison Starr
Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine, Pt. 1 James Brown
Benny's Dispatch Christopher Jackson & Mandy Gonzalez
Politan Nellie McKay
The Waves Princeton
Jai Ho A. R. Rahman, Sukhvinder Singh, Tanvi Shah & Mahalaxmi Iyer
Nightingale Norah Jones
ABC Jackson 5
Wonderwall Oasis
The Little Black Bull Pete Seeger
Samson Regina Spektor
Shake Your Booty KC & The Sunshine Band
Mexico Low Stars
(Don't Fear) The Reaper Blue Öyster Cult
La Espera Pistolera
We're Going to Be Friends The White Stripes

Monday, July 20, 2009

A life in books

“I am ashamed, or perhaps proud, to say how much of my time is spent thinking, thinking, thinking about literature” (VWL 2.554; 8/25/22; to Jacques Raverat)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Virginia Woolf on Henry James

One of my favorite moments from the Letters: “Well then, we went and had tea with Henry James today…and Henry James fixed me with his staring blank eye—it is like a childs marble—and said ‘My dear Virginia, they tell me—they tell me—they tell me—that you—as indeed being your fathers daughter nay your grandfathers grandchild—the descendant I may say of a century—of a century—of quill pens and ink—ink—ink pots, yes, yes, yes, they tell me—ahm m m—that you, that you, that you write in short.’ This went on in the public street, while we all waited, as farmers wait for the hen to lay an egg—do they?—nervous, polite, and now on this foot now on that.” (L 1.306; 25 August 1907; to Violet Dickinson)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Pleasure in Woolf’s Letters

There is something so wonderfully joyful in reading about others’ failures at teaching. Here are two good ones:

“Yesterday I did a very melancholy thing—which was to take my working women over the Abbey. Only one came!—and we solemnly went round the Chapel and the waxworks together, and saw the mummy of a 40 year old parrot—which makes history so interesting miss!” (L 1.192; 18 June 1905; to Violet)

“Do you know I lecture on English Composition at Morley? ‘Is this an Arithemetic Class Miss?’ a new Dutchman asked me last time when I had done” (L 1.212; 10 Nov. 1905; to Lady Robert Cecil)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Farewell Leicester Square

Betty Miller’s novel about being Jewish in London in the 1930s is far, far better than I expected. I set out to read a book of considerable historical interest, a worthy book. I found, instead, a really expert novel, written by a very young Betty Miller (in her mid-twenties) centering on Alec Berman, a Jewish man from Brighton who longs to work in film, becomes a celebrated director and marries the daughter of his mentor.

Throughout, the novel offers astute glimpses of all kinds of casual moments of wounding anti-Semitism: the wife’s friend, also a schiksa, comments that the son’s name, David, is inevitable, combining, as it does, Jewishness with fashion; Alec and his old friend Lew Solomon walk through Trafalgar Square to hear a newsboy touting the only “non-Jewish controlled paper” in the city; Alec’s brother-in-law, refined and repressed, withdraws from his sister’s life when she marries a Jew; there is even an offstage playground fight. These scenes, scattered across this 300-page novel, offer a kind of taxonomy of what it might have been like to live as a successful Jew in London during the years of Hitler’s rise to power. (Hitler himself is in the background throughout, his voice on the radio.)

This was Miller’s third novel but Victor Gollancz, the usually wonderful progressive English Jewish publisher refused to publish it in 1935; it eventually was printed in 1941: at that point, sadly, Miller’s exposition of the effects of casual, domestic anti-Semitism and the strains of a “mixed” marriage had been eclipsed by the events of WWII. I put “mixed” in quotations because one of the novel’s strengths is that both Alec and his wife are self-consciously rueful about the oddity of that term; Catharine muses that al marriages are “mixed,” that any marriage brings together strangers. Still, it’s not hard to see why, in 1935, a Jewish publisher would have hesitated to publish such an honest account of how far most non-Jewish English people had to come to overcome their prejudices.

Then, there is all the interest of the film industry itself. There is verisimilitude in the possibility of a Jew’s rise to power, respect and prominence in British film: many English Jews did work in film. The opening scene, of Alec and his lover, Hetty, a movie star, riding in a car through traffic to a premier is wonderfully done. And the second chapter, flashing back to his boyhood ache to get out of Brighton and work in film is fantastically right about adolescent desire and the ways that the movies attract (or used to attract) that kind of longing for something glamorous, something apart from the claustrophobia of home.

Miller’s writing is wonderful and she is at home with all kinds of scenes: she gets the mood of a boy smoking and staring off to sea right and then, pages later, she gets right the feeling of a new mother getting up from a dinner party to nurse her baby. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that moved among classes, cultures, genders with such grace.

As I guess you can hear, I’m a little gobsmacked by this book: so much better than I had any reason to guess.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Michael Jackson, Cynthia Hinds, and the Green River Murders

I’ve been silent on Michael Jackson’s death, though I’ve been so relieved that the shock and sorrow of his death has brought the greatness of his music back to me: it’s been wonderful to listen and listen again to all those great songs.

For me, the memory of Michael Jackson is all bound up with second grade and a girl in my class then who was murdered, Cynthia Hinds. Cynthia loved the Jackson Five.

I have been thinking about her and recently, I found the essay I wrote about her death back in 2003 when her murderer was sentenced. Cynthia was one of the victims of Gary Ridgway, the Green River Murderer. The Green River Murders were a series of serial killings of prostitutes along a lonely strip of highway south of the Sea-Tac Airport.

In 2003, I wrote:
Cynthia Hinds and I were in the second grade together at Lowell Elementary School in Seattle. We were not friends. She envied my ability to read with ease; I envied her beauty. Looking back at our class picture, I can see that she was a wide-eyed, buck-toothed girl who had yet to grow into her looks, but to me, at seven, she was the prettiest girl in the class. Beautiful. She had cinnamon skin, huge brown eyes, and long wavy hair that she wore in a ponytail on the side of her head, tied with thick, fuzzy red yarn. Hers is still the hair I think of as the prettiest I have ever seen. …

She was good at dancing. Everyday, we did Soul Train. I ran between the two swaying lines of classmates, trying to get it over with; Cynthia thrived on the attention. She loved the Jackson Five. One day, Ms. Pogue asked us to write a little composition, finishing the sentence: “If I could invite anyone to dinner, I would invite…” While I wrote an essay on Abraham Lincoln, Cynthia was getting Ms. Pogue’s help with the spelling of Michael and Jermaine.
There is a lot to say here—about my nerdiness and aspiration, about her love for the Jackson Five and my sense that I wouldn’t know what to say to them (let alone remember Marlon, Randy, and Tito’s names or tell them apart). (Funny to imagine being more comfortable with Lincoln than with Jermaine Jackson, but with Lincoln, I felt more confident: I had a lot of questions to ask him and I knew a lot more about him, having read the D’Aulaire biography dozens and dozens of times.) Lowell was a very integrated elementary school: no one race dominated and we thought and talked a lot about race all the time.

I also remember that Cynthia pinned me to the wall every day for a little over a week and kicked me in the butt. No matter which exit I used, she found me, gave me one kick, and walked away. Eventually, the teachers got control, and I was freed.

Even after elementary school, I remembered her—how pretty she was and her animus to me and all the confusing feelings connected with that, with knowing that I was smarter than she was, knowing (duh!) that just by my being white, things (what things I couldn’t have said) were easier for me than for her. So I was shocked to see her picture on the front page of the Seattle Times as a murder victim in 1982. There I was, in high school honors classes and this girl who had been such a part of my second grade life was dead.

I think back to that intimidating Soul Train line in second grade and remember loving Michael Jackson in spite of my fear of dancing in public. I think we all loved Michael Jackson. I still do.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Today’s Dalloway discovery

“I feel much better –though attacked with heart disease, you’ll be sorry to hear, the day before we left. I thought I was probably dying, but Fergusson says its only the nerves of the heart go wrong after influenza” (Woolf, Letters, 2.411; January 2, 1920, to Vanessa)

That’s a lovely footnote for this sentence: “For having lived in Westminster--how many years now? over twenty,--one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes.” (Mrs. Dalloway, [1925]).

Friday, July 10, 2009

Street Music, Victorian and Modern

One of the highlights of the Woolf conference was Anna Snaith’s plenary talk about street musicians. Anna is working on the Cambridge edition of The Years, a novel full of music, including barrel organs. Anna drew our attention to the sonic atmosphere of Woolf’s London and put it in the context of Victorian campaigns against street musicians.

The head of Bass brewery was an MP and headed up a campaign against street musicians: demanding licenses, trying to rid the streets of the nuisance, etc. A who’s who of Victorian intellectuals signed the petition, claiming that the incessant tune of the barrel organ drove them near to madness. Anna played a few tunes and, I must say, they made the Mr. Softee truck jingle look like the Philharmonic.

Still, as most of the street musicians were immigrants, often Italian, there was an ugly, racist and nativist element to the campaign.

Most interestingly, and this was Snaith’s main point, one of Woolf’s very first ever publications (in 1904, age 22) was a little article defending street musicians as artists, asking people to hear the impulse to music, to art, through all that might irritate them, and hoping for music on every street corner one day.

Anna got me thinking about music in Mrs. Dalloway as another kind of thing to footnote. Certainly, then, when Peter Walsh and Rezia hear the old woman singing ee um fa um so, part of the footnote should point readers to this longer history of Woolf insisting on the artistry of the humble street musicians, working for coins.

All of which has brings us to this morning’s little observation. In the context of Victorian intellectuals crying madness in the face of music, of Woolf drawing upon her own hallucinations to write the mad scene in Regent’s Park, of Woolf defending street musicians, then it seems to be of more than just passing interest that a street musician, playing a penny-whistle, plays a big role in Septimus’ Regent’s Park hallucination:
Music began clanging against the rocks up here… (that music should be visible was a discovery) and became an anthem, an anthem twined round now by a shepherd boy's piping (That's an old man playing a penny whistle by the public-house, he muttered) which, as the boy stood still, came bubbling from his pipe, and then, as he climbed higher, made its exquisite plaint while the traffic passed beneath. This boy's elegy is played among the traffic, thought Septimus. Now he withdraws up into the snows, and roses hang about him--the thick red roses which grow on my bedroom wall, he reminded himself. The music stopped. He has his penny, he reasoned it out, and has gone on to the next public-house. (MD 104)

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Point of View

My mother-in-law and I were talking about how much we’d loved Olive Kitteredge. She singled out the way that Elizabeth Strout moves, seemingly effortlessly among the multiple points of view. You go in and out of Olive’s perspective and that of the other townspeople easily, knowing all the while just where you are.

What was once a huge innovation in fiction a century ago has become commonplace, the way people write novels now.

Still, as a writer who is not a novelist, I’m continually amazed when writers pull it off. I’m back at editing Mrs. Dalloway again, hoping that my sabbatical next spring will afford me the chance to bring this process to a conclusion.

This time through, I was struck by this lovely, eery shift in point of view from the opening pages, when all the characters look up to see a skywriter:
So, thought Septimus, looking up, they are signalling to me…Tears ran down his cheeks.
It was toffee; they were advertising toffee…
Woolf wanted to show “the world seen by the sane & the insane side by side” (Diary, 14 October 1922) and in this tiny moment, in which an advertisement is both a secret signal and a lure to all with a sweet tooth, does just that.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

For interruptions there will always be….

As I sit in our plain little rented house on the river’s edge, I have in my head this image of an English country cottage, a Cotswolds thatched cottage, with rambling roses and a swinging gate. I imagine it full of bowls of oranges, jars of gingerbread, and the possibility of endless mornings of writing.

But the thought soon sickens me: it starts seeming like some of those crafty mommy blogs that I mostly read for schadenfreude, full of Martha Stewart-y tight extreme close-ups of the perfect peach, the porcelain mug of green tea.

In any case, I find that, in the end, I like life with a wider angle. Sitting here with a box of Dora Band-aids, a couple quarters from my husband’s pocket, my watch, a white rock, some crumbs, a bent paperclip, all on a very loud oilcloth tablecloth (huge yellow sunflowers on a blue background): Martha Stewart would need an army to fashion this into something redolent of the charms of a month in a rented house by the River.

Maybe I have to learn to dislike the fantasy of a cell, of a life apart and uninterrupted. It’s not that I don’t need time to write without children around: I do, and that’s why we hire a sitter for the mornings. It’s just that, since I am blessed with children and the desire to write, I need to strike a richer balance. That’s a banal insight, worthy of the mommy blogs themselves, but a little rougher around the edges.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Harry, Revised

Mark Sarvas’ debut novel was another book I loved, that I never had the time to post about in the whirlwind of spring.

I waited until paperback to take the plunge with Mark’s book, fearing I might not like it. I am such a big fan of The Elegant Variation, which strikes me as a wonderful model book blog: mostly bookish, but with just enough posts about personal matters to fill out the sense of voice, to make me care all the more about his John Banville obsession. And I’ve met Mark a couple times and like him a ton.

But I knew that it was a book about a young widower, about a man whose wife had died during botched plastic surgery. That seemed dubious to the feminist in me: the woman pays with her life for the man’s epiphany that looks are not all that matters.

In the end, it was true that I found it really hard to take Anna's death: I liked her and identified with "the wife" (besides, that name! oy, my narcissism slays me) so the book was upsetting at first. Still, I persisted and then really, really grew to love the book. Like Ilana Stanger-Ross’s novel, Mark’s is that wonderful kind of book: literary fiction that is a delight to read. Some of the sentences are divine; some of the comedy is hilarious; there are no missteps. For pleasure reading, isn’t it so lovely to find that balance between intelligent and unpretentious?

There is a whole scene about a lost wedding ring, the jeweler's vengeance, the wife's oblivious unraveling of the whole deception is utterly hilarious: it's hard to write great comedy that also has poignancy. I told it to my mom on the phone and she, an aficionado of post-adulterous revenge, cooed "ooh, that's good!"

(She has since read the book, and, uncharacteristically for her [who always sides with wives] concurred that Anna made many mistakes in that marriage, that Harry had a point when...)

Anyway, it’s in paperback and I think it’s totally worth it. It makes me so happy when friends—even virtual friends—write books that I can recommend.

Monday, July 06, 2009

How I loved Sima!

I read Ilana Sanger-Ross’s appealing debut novel months ago. I gulped it down. And then, a while ago, I wrote up a little synopsis for a friend. But even the existence of that text was not enough to pull me back to my neglected blog and blogging friends—such were the pressures of spring and the Woolf Conference.

Sima’s Undergarments for Women is a delightful novel: easy to read and beautifully written. It stands in that lovely but underappreciated middle ground between literary fiction and pop and I liked it the better for that. The novel centers on Sima, a secular Jewish woman in her 50s who runs a small bra shop in the basement of her home in a neighborhood that has become ultra-orthodox. She grieves over her childlessness & that grief has poisoned her marriage. When a young Israeli girl, killing time while her boyfriend is in the army, comes to work with her, changes happen.

That’s what I loved about the novel: things start out bleak and sad, changes happen—they are unpredictable, but the arc of the story is toward happiness. And this happiness is hard won and interesting. Sima makes Timna into a kind of alter-ego: she envies her, mothers her, spies on her, lives through her. Sima is a flawed and wonderful heroine.

Meanwhile, the world of the bra shop in this conservative and closed community brings its own delights: there’s an element of cultural tourism here, to be sure. It’s interesting to read about the young wives and mothers, so constrained in their roles. It’s deeply familiar, too, to read the conversations women have with each other (and the private thoughts they don’t express) about their bodies, their hopes, sex, marriage, childbearing. A passage in which Sima watches young virgins try on sexy lingerie sticks with me: she knows they think this underwear is about to be a big part of a glamorous new life and she sees, more realistically, that they’ll marry, get pregnant, and return for a nursing bra in pretty short order. Somehow, Stanger-Ross makes that seem wry, not tragic.

I recommended this book to my mom & mother-in-law, both of whom loved it. It’s an easy book to love. It’s also is beautifully written—she is very sensitive and observant; some of her sentences are gorgeous. There are no missteps.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Help Orphans Worldwide by having a cocktail on the Vineyard

There is a delicious absurdity to the charity fundraiser. Still, as middle class as I am, I can see the point: it’s a lot easier to open your wallet for AIDs orphans if, in the short term, you get to hear great writers read and sip a nummy cocktail.

This is probably the fanciest event I’ll ever be on the poster for:
An Evening of Readings and Cocktails.
H.O.W. is going to Martha's Vineyard!

Please join us for an evening of readings and cocktails at Midnight Farm in Vineyard Haven.

Readings by Geraldine Brooks, Mary Gaitskill, Fanny Howe, Honor Moore, Natasha Radojcic, Alexandra Styron and Alison Weaver.

August 7th, 2009
Midnight Farm
18 Water-Cromwell Lane
Vineyard Haven, MA 02568
I wish I were going to be on the Vineyard to raise a glass to these writers and to support the journal and the cause! But maybe you can be there for me.

I’m as stunned as I am proud to be on the board AND in the current issue of this journal (with an essay on rivals, their use and abuse). It’s a gorgeous journal, full of art, poetry, essays, and fiction. It also all goes to raise awareness for a worthy cuase: the plight of children left orphaned by AIDs. Contributors have the option of taking payment or donating it and the fundraisers’ proceeds go directly to a specific orphanage (a new one each issue).

H.O.W. was founded by my friend, the brilliant novelist, Natasha Radojcic, along with Alison Weaver (who is equally gifted and beautiful). Please tell your friends to come to the party in August, and, Vineyard or now, check out the journal and support the cause.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Transatlantic Women Modernists

Since I wrote such a massive list of all the writers who might make it in my class, I’ve been feeling bad about the writers who made the cut but whose work didn’t come up to the River. Is that crazy? They’re all dead. They can’t care. But I care.

So, here is what I know, so far. There are fourteen classes, but one needs to be an introduction. We meet for two hours each week. At the moment, I know I’ll be teaching the following:
  1. Woolf (some have already requested The Waves, but I’m not sure which I’ll teach),
  2. Gertrude Stein 1
  3. Stein 2: I’m giving her two weeks because I think she’s out of favor, challenging, amazing and worth more attention
  4. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes and More
  5. another Harlem Renaissance woman--perhaps not Nella Larsen—that’s the slot that Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Jessie Fauset are “competing” for (I mean that with heavy irony—see below)
  6. Marianne Moore
  7. Jean Rhys, not Wide Sargasso Sea, probably not Good Morning, Midnight (since my colleague often teaches it)
  8. Katherine Mansfield, a generous selection of stories
  9. Elizabeth Bowen
  10. Stevie Smith, Novel on Yellow Paper & poetry
  11. Djuna Barnes, Nightwood & more
  12. a Persephone book (perhaps Betty Miller's Farewell Leicester Square)
  13. and then, I think I need another avant garde woman.
That leaves Rebecca West off the syllabus, I see, though that could change.

When you see how little room there is in a syllabus, you see literary turf wars in a different light. You see, in the end, how very little room there is for a “new” writer to make it onto the list. I write that Fauset and Dunbar-Nelson are up against each other with a bitter irony: I know almost nothing about either; both seem worthy, important writers; both could make it onto the syllabus in the end. They are just one example of a whole range of such mini-competitions between less well-known writers as I shape the course. It’s a class on American and British women, poetry and prose; I want a balance of styles and political outlooks, urban and rural themes, gay and straight writers … and so I keep looking at the list and asking myself if it’s fair. But fair to whom?

Here are some other ways of thinking about the list:

Moore and Smith are poets. Stein is nearly one: that’s just 4 weeks on poetry and poetic prose (excepting Woolf)—and we’ll likely focus more on Smith’s novel than her poems.

Because my specialty is modern British, I tend to favor that side of the Atlantic, but the list so far has only 6 weeks of Brits: Woolf, Rhys, Mansfield, Bowen, Smith, and Miller. I’m pleased that the list is as cosmopolitan as the first half of the 20th century in England can be: Miller (who is Jonathan Miller’s mother) was Jewish (among many other things) and Rhys (who was probably of mixed race) and Mansfield are both colonial.

Among Americans, I’ll do Stein, Hurston, Moore, and Barnes for sure.

I watch contemporary writers bicker and battle over prizes and reputations knowing that part of what is at stake is a legacy they will never see. That there will come a day when some future professor sits staring at her bookshelves, asking herself if she’s really going to ask a dozen young people to read a mostly-forgotten novel about the career and romantic struggles of a young black woman or a selection of short stories by a New Zealander who died young or a lesbian novel full of antiquated ideas about homosexuality or something else entirely.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009


Once again, we are up at the River for the month of July, in the very same house we rented last year. My books and papers are unpacked. I have to return to the long-neglected edition of Mrs. Dalloway, cast to the side in the fall when I had to take over a colleague’s course, and again in spring because of the Woolf Conference. I also want to do some reading around in lesser-known modernist women writers for a graduate course in the spring. When I left New Jersey, I was still a-jangle, still exhausted from the conference and jet-lagged from a whirlwind week in Seattle visiting my family with my daughters.

It made packing hard, so I just threw everything in.

I see now that I have brought fifty books with me.

5-0. 50.

Half of them are books for work on the Dalloway edition:
  1. The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume 3 (1919-1924)
  2. The Letters of VW, vol. 1,
  3. vol. 2,
  4. vol. 3. It was the letters that undid me last summer: so much more sad (so many deaths, in such quick succession, and then pretending for weeks that her brother Thoby was not dead so as not to upset her friend Violet until Violet herself had recovered) and show-offy (just the worst of Woolf: brittle, “brilliant,” too clever, snobby) than the diaries which I find deeply moving. Still, I need to read through them and make my notes.
  5. The Diary, vol. 3 (1925-1930): I don’t need to read much of that.
  6. the Modern Library edition of Mrs. Dalloway
  7. the Uniform Hogarth edition of Mrs. Dalloway
  8. the Oxford paperback edition of Mrs. Dalloway
  9. the newly annotated Harcourt edition of Mrs. Dalloway not mentioning my electronic copy of the first English and American editions, that’s a lot of copies of one book, though I’m mad at myself for forgetting the Penguin…
  10. Mrs. Dalloway’s Party, the only short story sequence associated with a novel in Woolf’s whole oeuvre
  11. Night and Day Woolf’s second novel, which I don’t know well, but to write the footnotes for Dalloway, I need to know any prior appearances of characters, placenames, even metaphors, just to be able to refer readers back
  12. Woolf Studies Annual volume 8 for David Bradshaw’s essay on Septimus and the war
  13. The Years
  14. A Room of One’s Own
  15. The Oxford Book of English Verse, the edition that Woolf herself read so that I can refamiliarize myself with the poetry she loved best in case that helps me catch an allusion
  16. The Metamorphoses because Jane DeGay had an intriguing argument about Ovidian metaphors in Woolf that I’d like to follow up on, though it’s a challenge for me
  17. Palgrave Advances in Virginia Woolf Studies
  18. The Cambridge Introduction to Virginia Woolf because I promised, over a year ago, to review these books
  19. Clarissa Dalloway Harold Bloom’s collection of the classic essays on her: I’m still amazed at how little I know given how much I know…
  20. Virginia Woolf’s Novels and the Literary Past Jane deGay’s monograph on Woolf’s allusions
  21. Continuing Presences almost a reference book of all the literature Woolf alluded to
  22. Virginia Woolf and London an older monograph by Susan Squier which I’ll return to with new interest after my crash course in urban theory surrounding the Woolf Conference, hoping to catch a footnote or two to the placenames in Dalloway
  23. Virginia Woolf’s Reading Notebooks, Brenda Silver’s transcription of Woolf’s notebooks provides clues to what Woolf was reading when and thus, clues to where to look for possible allusions
  24. Then, there are the books that I’m considering for my fall grad class on Transatlantic Modern Women Farewell Leicester Square Betty Miller’s novel of a Jewish film director in London in the twenties, which I began last night and am already sure I’ll teach
  25. The Desert and the Sown about the explorer Gertrude Bell: I wonder about including one of these non-fiction explorers on the syllabus and this one is about Iraq, so it’s of special interest
  26. Jean Rhys: the Complete Novels: I hate The Wide Sargasso Sea and a colleague often teaches Good Morning, Midnight, so I’m wondering if there is another Rhys to teach—and I’ve downloaded Maud’s Granta conversation with Alexander Chee to teach me more about the Rhys/Ford affair
  27. The Montana Stories by the great and neglected Katherine Mansfield: these masters of the short story so often get short shrift, but I will be giving Mansfield a week without doubt and am excited to dip into her again
  28. The Well of Loneliness: Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian classic, as yet unread by me. The Unlit Lamp, also by Hall, shook me to my core as a girl
  29. Seven for a Secret because my friend Jane Garrity is interested in Mary Webb and other neglected rural and/or conservative women of the period
  30. and then a trio of novels to read (or re-read) by my beloved Elizabeth Bowen to see if I want to do The Death of the Heart again—I love it but never teach it well—or something else: The Hotel
  31. The House in Paris
  32. The Last September
  33. Tayari suggested Alice Dunbar-Nelson, so I brought along The Works of Alice Dunbar-Nelson , vol. 2, because that volume (of 3) had the most exciting-sounding titles in it
  34. Not sure if I’m up to Mina Loy’s The Lost Lunar Baedeker, but I’ll give it an hour or two and see
  35. Testament of Youth because I’ve never read Vera Brittain
  36. Complete Poems by Marianne Moore, who has already made the cut
  37. We’ll do two weeks on Stein, whom I love but have mostly forgotten so I’m refreshing my memory with The Yale Gertrude Stein
  38. and Ida
  39. sad to say, I’ve also never read Sylvia Townend Warner. My friend Jay raves about Summer Will Show, a lesbian historical novel about the 1848 revolutions (hard to wrap my mind around that), but the NYRB reissue isn’t quite out, so I’ve brought alone a collection of stories called One Thing Leading to Another
  40. I am tired of Nella Larsen and the theme of passing, but Jessie Fauset’s first novel sounds interestingly Jamesian, about an educated, ambitious black woman: There is Confusion
  41. tons of people have told me over the years that I’ll love Rosamond Lehmann’s Dusty Answer: I’ll let you know
  42. I will certainly teach my beloved Stevie Smith, but I know less about her than I’d like, so I’ve brought along Frances Spalding’s biography, Stevie Smith
  43. Even the reading for pleasure this summer is work-like: Manhattan Transfer
  44. in the afterglow of the Woolf Conference, Vanessa & Virginia came along
  45. as did Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows
  46. I read and loved my former professor’s memoir Meatless Days and had so much to say about it that my mom urged me to write an essay—we’ll see if that happens
  47. and Lizzie brought over an advanced copy of her new book, Shelf Discovery, before she left, which is like dessert, so I dip in and out in the margins
  48. Gwen Raverat’s memoir of growing up in Cambridge as Darwin’s granddaughter,Period Piece, is meant to be fantastic and has lots of Bloomsbury resonances
  49. my grandmother went to high school in Shanghai, so I was already excited about Lisa See’s new novel Shanghai Girls before I read praise for it in the NYT. When I admired my mom’s copy, she gave it to me (thanks, mom!) and I’m already enjoying the atmosphere. Besides, it’s all about sisters!
  50. With fifty books, I’ll have to read one a day to merit the lugging, but I’ve already read one: What I Saw and How I Lied, Judy Blundell’s NBA winner—I’ll blog about that soon, no doubt.
And this doesn’t include On the Banks of Plum Creek which I’m almost done reading aloud the big girl and By the Shore of Silver Lake because I couldn’t stand to leave Mary blind for the whole summer, not to mention a handful of board books for the toddler (no longer a babe at 3, and full of mangled Mother Goose, recited inaccurately but with great enthusiasm), story books, chapter books for the big girl to read on her own (Junie B. Jones, Roald Dahl’s the BFG, etc.)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Killing the Fat Angel in The House

It’s boring, isn’t it, how often we tell ourselves these stories of silencing the voices of criticism and defeat?

I can teach my students to sympathize with Lily Briscoe’s efforts in To the Lighthouse to get past Charles Tansley’s “women can’t write, women can’t paint,” but as I teach the passage, it feels to me like a story from another era. So does the story in Woolf’s essay, “Professions for Women,” of killing the angel in the house. I am confident in my profession. I am happy with my writing: it’s never as good as I want it to be, it’s not nearly as good as I’d once dreamed it would be, but it perks along and I am generally all right with what I write and how it’s received.

Still, though, one of the meanest things anyone has ever said to me continues to ring in my ears when I get tired or start to falter. I’m ready to be done with it, but I’m not quite sure how to let it go.

Years ago, a boyfriend and I had some people over for dinner. This couple, his college friend and wife, are good-looking, athletic, easy-going. They are a lot like the Seattle people of my youth: smart liberals, committed to living an ethical life as long as they can still wear technical fabrics on their weekend outdoor challenges. I liked them a lot and, though I suspected they didn’t like me, I really tried my best to be my warmest self that night. I pushed my bookishness and clumsiness to the side, embraced as much as I could about open water kayaking and the importance of volunteering at the local midwifery practice. I did all this, cooked dinner, smiled, and tried to keep my equilibrium.

At the end of the night, after an evening that had gone from my being nervous to my being relaxed and everything being genuinely lovely, I looked at my guy. He had a real glow of affection in his eyes. I noticed this because I don’t usually get that look. I’m pretty enough. A handsome woman, I suppose. But I don’t spend a lot of time on my looks—I love pretty clothes, but other things in life—books, friends, cheese, social justice, flowers—are more important, so I get dressed in the morning, run a brush through my hair and call that good enough. Plus, I’m busy, competent, practical, and a little nervous. Not a seductress, but a nice woman trying her best. Not the kind of person who gets fond glances or inspires double takes. Sometimes, I remind myself to try to slow down enough to note the looks of affection, the moments of flirtation, so when they come I don’t miss them utterly. So this look on his face, I noticed.

“I was just thinking,” he said, “that if you lost ten pounds, you’d be as pretty as Jess.”

I know.

It totally shocked me, too. It still does. I mean, twenty years ago, when I went to Oxford for summer school, I was friends with a very pretty woman. She left the class after three weeks and I stayed on for another three. The night she left, someone came up to me and said, “I wonder what it will be like for you now that you’re not hanging out with someone so much prettier than you.” I was stunned: I knew Elizabeth was beautiful, but I had never thought of myself as her ugly friend. No more had I ever thought of myself as less pretty or fatter than Jess. If you’d asked me, objectively, to rank myself against these women, I would have said we were very different types. That’s all. For all my anxieties about beauty and weight, I liked these women and, in liking them, didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about them as greater beauties.

I look back on the Oxford comment and laugh. I don’t remember it exactly. I don’t know who said it. It seems clearly like the remark of a mean person, jealous that I had befriended her idea of “the prettiest girl here.”

The difficulty in exorcising the “if you lost ten pounds….” remark is that it was said by someone I loved. In a moment when I felt especially full of love and especially confident that he loved me. How do you forget boneheaded meanness at that level?

I’m no longer angry at the old boyfriend for this. It was clearly a testosterone blurt: a moment of uncontrollable male idiocy. But the lesson I took from that night—that people who love you may also be ranking you on some “objective” scale of their own making, that at any moment (especially when you let your guard down) someone you love may be at the ready with your grade for the evening—is harder to forget. It’s made me cautious, self-doubting, and self-hating. It comes back to me in private moments—just before falling asleep, on a run—and fills me with grief and rage. I would love to move on. But how?

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Woolf 09

I'll try to write up some text of Woolf 09 for you soon--the conference was incredible--but for now, how about a few images:
Here, you see Woolf Conference publicist, and Fordham student extraordinaire, Megan Branch posing with the fabulous Cecil and Jean Woolf. Megan and I paused a moment at the pre-banquet reception, and here I am posing with our plenary panel, Inspired by Woolf. The inimitable Katherine Lanpher interviewed three fabulous women inspired by Virginia Woolf: Dr. Ruth Gruber (she wrote a dissertation on Woolf at age 20 and went on to be a journalist and activist), Susan Sellers (who was launching her new novel, Vanessa and Virginia), and Kris Lundberg, actress and founder of the Shakespeare's Sister Theater company.

You can read Paula's account here.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

It's not too late to attend the Woolf Conference at Fordham's Lincoln Center campus.

We're expecting over 200 people starting on Thursday. The first talks begin at noon.

We have plenary sessions every day. Rebecca Solnit will be giving the keynote address on Friday afternoon at 3:30.

You may purchase a day-pass for $45. 4-day passes are $175. We will have volunteers helping register people beginning at 10:00 on Thursday morning. All events are in our classroom building at 113 W 60th, with plenary sessions in Pope Auditorium (street level), registration one flight up (escalator) on the Plaza, and most sessions on the 5th floor.

We have some wonderful fiction writers and poets reading from work inspired by Woolf on Friday, 1:30-3:00 and on Saturday, 11:00-12:30. On Saturday, 2:00-3:30, NYC public high school girls in Girls Write Now will be reading their work inspired by Woolf and from 4:00-5:30 we will have a panel discussion featuring three amazing women inspired by Woolf.

We also have two ticketed events. On Thursday at 8:00 we will be hosting a staged reading of "Vita & Virginia" directed by Matthew Maguire. Tickets are $15 at the door. On Friday at 8:00, The Stephen Pelton Dance Theater and the band Princeton are presenting a one-night only collaboration of Woolf inspired modern dance & pop music. Tickets for that are $20 at the door.

You can find more information about the conference at our conference website. Please note that the website lists the Merc reception as being on Thursday: we changed the date to Friday.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Not about Virginia Woolf: Fiction Conference at Fordham University

The Mercantile Library is so awesome! I cannot exaggerate how much fun I had leading one of their reading groups this spring. I love teaching, but there is something really special about a non-credit class, with a bunch of adults who give up an evening just to come together and talk about a novel.

And, as all blog readers know, there is nothing more awesome than Beatrice’s own Ron Hogan.

So, when then Merc asked me if I could get Fordham to co-sponsor the Mercantile Library Center For Fiction’s Writer’s Conference, I said YES!

Now, I’m emerging from my pre-Woolf Conference flurry to encourage you to register for the conference and spread the word.

Ron has put together an amazing day of information and advice for writers. PLUS for the registration fee of $200, you also get a month of studio space at the Mercantile Library. Who is speaking? Well, the fabulous Lauren Cerand of luxlotus, Toure himself, Ben Greenman, whose been getting such amazing publicity for his funky new book. Also: the funny and wise Jennifer Weiner. And Sara Nelson, former editor Publisher’s Weekly. And the dry and intelligent Richard Nash, formerly of Soft Skull. And Sigrid Nunez, who wrote a book about Leonard Woolf’s marmoset (among other things). In short, in a single day, you have the chance to hear from novelists, publishers, publishing insiders, and publicists.

All of this is happening at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus, my home base: 113 W 60th, just one block west of Columbus Circle. Register today and pass it on! It’s going to be great.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

it was this : it was this:

Even if you're not coming to the Woolf Conference, you should make time for June 5th's one night only music and dance performance, "it was this : it was this : "

it was this: it was this:
songs and dances inspired by the life and work of
Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group
with Princeton & Stephen Pelton Dance Theater
at the 19th Annual Virginia Woolf Conference
Friday June 5th, 2009 8pm
Pope Auditorium, Fordham University
113 W 60th St, New York, NY 10023

Tickets $20. Available online today & tomorrow only & then at at the door.

But don't take it from me. Here's what the collaborators say:
Southern California frolic meets Northern California serious in a one-night only collaboration of song and dance.

Princeton, the Los Angeles-based trio, join forces with San Francisco’s Stephen Pelton Dance Theater in it was this: it was this: an evening of songs and dances inspired by the life and work of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group.

Princeton will perform all of the songs from their recent EP Bloomsbury, each lyrically focused upon a member of the Bloomsbury Group. Portraits of Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes are each presented in a different musical framework with lush orchestral arrangements. The band is comprised of twin brothers Jesse and Matt Kivel and Ben Usen. The band will be joined by 8 additional musicians in recreating their frolicsome, exuberant take on the cast of Bloomsbury characters.

Stephen Pelton Dance Theater, known for known its intimate theatricality and emotional intensity, may be familiar to audiences from previous Woolf conferences. This year the company will perform several new works including the premiere of it was this: it was this: a choreographic study of Woolf’s punctuation. Using a single paragraph from To the Lighthouse, the company dances their way from the first word to the last, pausing briefly for every comma, parentheses and semicolon in-between. The company also performs a revised version of The Death of the Moth, first seen at the Plymouth State Conference in 1997.

The artists will combine forces for the premiere of Lytton/Carrington, a portrait-in-miniature of this most original of love stories.

Pelton writes, “What is most interesting to me in this collaboration with Princeton, is how remarkably different our approaches to Woolf are. I suspect that some of this may be attributable to the fact that we are from completely different generations—I am in my mid-forties, they in their early twenties. Their sweet, light-hearted and, at times, irreverent response to the material would have been unthinkable to me twenty years ago when I started to read Woolf and make dances inspired by her. Though they are always respectful, their songs embrace the playful spirit in Woolf’s work and in the lives of her colleagues; whereas I have tended to focus my response on the gravity of Woolf’s concerns. This contrast should make for a very fascinating evening in the theater.”
Tickets are selling fast, so hop online & buy one: no need to register for the conference, just get a ticket (or four or five). And big, big, big thanks to Paula Maggio of Blogging Woolf for turning me on to Princeton in the first place!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Grading, grading, grading.

Then, THE WOOLF CONFERENCE!!! It's coming so soon.

Then, well, my precious little blog, I will return to you, I vow.

In the meantime, grading (checking my RSS reader), grading (refreshing my email inbox), grading (watching goofy video clips on Jezebel & HuffPo).

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Rivals and Orphans: H.O.W. Launch Party, 5/13

Last summer, I wrote an essay on rivalry. It's one of those things that came out in a couple days and was good enough, in the draft to actually polish up and make into an essay. In the fall, I had coffee with my friend Natasha. What should I do with the essay?

Well, we're actually looking for nonfiction for the next issue of H.O.W....

And there you have it: the journal launch party is next week. The journal is out. If you're in the city, come on down to the Bowery Poetry Club & celebrate. If not, you can buy a copy of the issue online: it's very pretty, features a new Susan Minot short story, really interesting visual art & much more.

Here are the details:

H.O.W. Journal Issue 4 Launch Party & FUNdraiser

A reading by the legendary Eileen Myles and the hilarious Sam Lipsyte.
A performance by Drug Rug - groove to sweet rock and roll, and pure bluesy chaos.
A silent auction with luxurious items at crazy discounts!
(DVF dress! Fancy dinners! Art!)

And just by showing up you will be supporting the work of emerging artists and writers, keeping a small non profit journal alive in a dark dismal time, AND HELPING ORPHANS WORLDWIDE.

ALL this good stuff for the low low price of $15 (or $20 dollars at the door)


May 13, 2009
Bowery Poetry Club
380 Bowery, (between Houston and Bleecker)
Or $20 at the door!

H.O.W. Journal publishes a mix of prominent writers and artists alongside new talents with an effort to raise money and awareness for the 15 million children worldwide that have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS. We publish fiction, nonfiction, poetry and visual art.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Flush and Mrs. Dalloway.

I’m rereading Woolf’s 1933 novel Flush for my class at the Mercantile Library on Monday night. It’s such a delight.

Lighter than Orlando, it shares with Orlando the mock-biographical form. Flush was Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s beloved spaniel. The book is arch—perhaps too arch for some—but once it gets going it’s hilarious. Woolf writes in a confident third person, describing the smells that enchant and disgust Flush in detail. She also describes Flush’s bewilderment at Barrett’s writing: daily, she sits silent in her room on Wimpole Street, “passing her hand over a white page with a black stick.”

But what roused me from my sofa in my Victorian sitting room (equipped, it is true, with a piano but also a tv with internal DVD—Mary Poppins is currently in heavy rotation with the younger set--and a very nice radio/CD player with iPod dock) was the list of her siblings, one of whom was called Septimus!

That’s a footnote, isn’t it? That, among other things, Septimus Warren Smith’s name is an homage to one of Elizabeth Barrett’s brothers. (There were 12; there was an Octavius after Septimus.) In Mrs. Dalloway, 8 years earlier, Woolf wrote: London has swallowed up many millions of young men called Smith; thought nothing of fantastic Christian names like Septimus with which their parents have thought to distinguish them. “

Though other scholars have written about Woolf and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, when I was working on my chapter on Byron and Woolf, I got the notion that there was a deep, deep unexplored connection between the two of them. The time spent on the sofa, an imaginary (or real) invalid; the revelatory freedom into marriage and away from father; the feminism; the commitment to political freedom; the linking of feminism with other political causes; the love of dogs. I’m getting ahead of myself, but you see the point: there is a lot to say here.

In other Flush news, the early thirties were a little bit of a boom period for EBB, as I like to think of her. Not only did Flush come out in 1933, but, in 1934, Norma Shearer starred in “The Barretts of Wimpole Street.” The 1934 New York Times review (on my birthday!) praises the film highly, with special mention for the dog:
A report on the acting would be woefully inadequate without a tribute to Flush, the cocker spaniel of Elizabeth. His almost human and occasionally superhuman powers of expression are so remarkable as to cause some alarm for the superiority of the human race.

Monday, April 20, 2009

More E.B. White

In my head, I have a thoughtful but somewhat scathing critique of the deficiencies of last week's event.

On my desk, I have more work to do than hours in the day.

Plus, I've been sitting in my workout clothes for 3 hours.

In the absence of a proper post, I lead you to GalleyCat, where you can see a video of me talking about E.B. White.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Omit Needless Words

I'm off, in a few hours, to a celebration of Strunk & White's The Elements of Style at the Museum of the City of New York. I am so excited! One of the panelists is Barbara Walraff, who was interviewed about the book's continuing relevance on NPR this morning. Also, Roger Rosenblatt, Roy Blount... It should be interesting and festive.

In middle school, I found and took over my father's copy. We passed it around amongst ourselves and marched around the playground declaiming the rules: "Omit needless words! Omit needless words!"

I don't know what I learned from that book, but it's just about everything. It's a style book that I've read again and again and something about it resonated deeply in me.

So I was puzzled and bewildered by the Geoffry K. Pullum's Strunk-bashing in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week. Pullum writes patent nonsense. His main claim is as follows:
The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students' grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.
A claim he goes on to "prove" with a long list of grammatical pedantry, of citations of exceptions to their principles, etc. Utterly missing the point of a book on style: that it is not a grammar guide or a handbook, but a style book. White has a very specific style: elegant, clear, and journalistic. That is not the goal of every writer, nor should it be. But for me, and for many others, his suggestions--which I embraced as rules as a girl--helped me find my voice and convey my ideas with more grace than I ever would have found without them.

Pullum can sit this one out. I'll be raising my glass to my hero, E B White, and his great teacher and collaborator, William Strunk.