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.)