Monday, November 05, 2012

Fernham has moved

You can find me here, with a spanking new website and all of Fernham folded within. If I were a better IT guy, you'd get an automatic redirect, but you're just going to have to click. And soon enough even the sad, temporary will point here, too. And a new blog post on Sandy the Terrible to get us started.

Monday, October 08, 2012

The blog is dead! Long live the blog!

I miss blogging.

2012 has turned out to be my worst year for blogging yet. And, alas, one of my best for facebook. Now, I love facebook. I would never bore you with pictures of my daughters swirling apples around in a bowl of melted caramel, but there, in that happy let’s-pretend stew of friends from kindergarten up through now, there is something comforting in getting a few “likes” for that image of happy childhood.

Still, this was better. A better discipline for me and better for my writing.

I submitted the mss of my edition of Mrs. Dalloway on January 31. But it wasn’t quite right, and so the editors asked for a bunch of changes. I resubmitted it in June, but I didn’t send it to right batch of editors. Finally, every superior editor signed off on my work in August and, two Fridays ago, on 9/28, I submitted it a third time. I’m hoping it’s the charm.

And, part of that hope is all about the hope that I can return to writing little tiny essays here from time to time.

We shall see.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Speaking of Woolf….

I’ve now done two of four sessions on Woolf for a book discussion series at the Brooklyn Public Library. They have been amazing. Preparing to talk about Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse with a group (how big? somewhere between twenty and forty) of adults, some of whom have been reading Woolf since before I was born, others who’ve never read her is thrilling and nerve-wracking. I can do little else on the day of a talk.

But then, to get into a room with other adults who’ve chosen to spend part of their day thinking and talking about a writer is a deeply moving thing and, once we get going, the time takes care of itself.

The conversation I had on Sunday, however, was unlike any other conversation I’ve had about Woolf in all my quarter century of studying her.

Luna Stage, just down the road from me in West Orange, is mounting the New Jersey Premier of Vita and Virginia (Eileen Atkins’ wonderful adaptation of letters to tell the story of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf’s love affair and of their continuing friendship thereafter) and they invited me to give a talkback after one of the performances. Of course, I said yes. A friend and I were already planning to go.

Then they asked me if I would speak with the director and the actresses.

On Sunday, I did.

We planned to talk for an hour, but it quickly grew to two. I did my best to tell them how to pronounce Lytton Strachey and Violet Trefusis. I tried to explain, not as an intellectual, but in ways that would help an actress, what I thought drew these women to each other, how I understood their sexualities and their attraction to each other. By the end of the time, the actresses were more in character than out, “I think I’m jealous…” “I say you don’t get anything done, but you get so much done…”

What a magical thing: to knock on a door, meet a group of strangers, and, within moments be passionately debating what it might have been like to be another woman altogether.

I’m still smiling.

If you’re in the area, I’ll be talking about Between the Acts on Wednesday, 9/19, 3:00-5:00 and about Moments of Being two weeks later, on 10/3. Both of these events are at the Brooklyn Public Library. These discussions are free and open to the public.

My talkback at Luna Stage is after the 3:00 PM performance on Sunday 9/30. The actresses are amazing and tickets are only $25.

Friday, August 31, 2012


In the spirit of the new year, here are the remarks I gave earlier this week at a Convocation for first-year students at my university:

A Jesuit educator wrote about the challenges of designing a curriculum for the rapidly changing world: “Current problems will in all probability no longer be current when the youth completes his [or her] education, and so by attempting to fit him for the present the school may unfit him for the future.” Now, Allan P. Farrell was writing about the 1930’s and it would be easy for us to laugh--if he thought that was a rapidly changing world, he should take a look at 2012.

But it’s not so simple as that: one of the challenges of college education, whenever one embarks on it, is the challenge of trying to learn what one might need for a future that one cannot fully imagine. What I love about liberal arts education is that, in all its wild impracticality, it refuses to try to predict. In fact, rather than narrowly striving to guess about the thing that’s about to happen in a year or two, the liberal arts education that you’re embarking on is designed to teach you about the past, help you ask big questions, and to demand that you work to shape the future--your own and that of your generation.

In order to get the most out of your education, however, you are going to have to step away from the now for a moment. This morning, Colum McCann said that some of what you’re facing will be very hard. One challenge that you can be sure to face is the challenge of moving being a consumer of information to being an active thinker, striving to educate your mind. We live in a thrilling world, one full of evil and danger and also full of great joy and we know this because every time we look down at our devices, every time we pass a monitor, every time we turn on our tablets and laptops, we can see what is happening anywhere in the world. But that glorious instant access comes at a price. We skim and click, we text, forward, like, and share, but rarely do we ask ourselves to pause and think. As one journalist describes his own love/hate relationship to Google “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski” (Carr 227).

I exhort you to dive. Dive as deeply as you can. You are great Jet Skiers. But you didn’t come to Fordham to get better at skimming the surface. That’s not what this four years of your life is for. Your college education is the moment to learn how to dive, to dive deeply and discover the treasures buried far beneath the surface. That means training and practicing, remembering how to be still and just read--doing nothing other than reading--for longer and longer stretches of time.

In her 1929 essay on women’s education, Virginia Woolf writes about trying to follow an idea as it swims away from her--her thought, she writes, “to call it by a prouder name than it deserved, hat let its line down into the stream. It swayed, minute after minute, hither and thither among the reflections and the weeds, letting the water lift it and sink it until--you know the little tug--the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one’s line…” Her thought swims away from her grasp when a guard shoos her from the riverbank--she’s interrupted by another.

Now, it is we who interrupt ourselves. As you embark on your college education, I wish you patience and I exhort you to cultivate the strength to dive deeply into your studies. You can always go jet skiing next summer. 

Monday, July 30, 2012

Cathi Hanauer’s Gone

I read this book because I needed a summer beachy read and saw that Hanauer was the editor of the collection The Bitch in the House. Knowing she was a feminist, I hoped that this would be a light book that also wouldn’t make my reading stop short with some moment of feminist outrage.

It was all right but not nearly as great as it could have been. Boy, does it ever capture something about the zeitgeist, though—both of my own life right now and, as I understand it, of a big sliver of lives of people in their 40s. So, on balance, I am glad I read it to the end. Gone tells the story of Eve Adams (that name! So unsubtle—it in itself almost made me stop), a nutritionist, and her husband, Eric, a sculptor. When the novel starts, Eric has run off with the babysitter. I can see why.

Eve is my worst version of myself: wound way too tight, working way too hard, primarily responsible for the home, food prep, and children, she is also having a great moment in her career: things are really taking off for her. Eric, by contrast, is struggling. Uninspired, he hasn’t completed—or sold—a sculpture in a long time and is wondering if he has it in him to ever create art again. (Now, since I’m identifying, let me clarify and say that this—the dry spell or the running off with the babysitter part—is emphatically not a parallel to my beloved’s life.) There’s no room for Eric in their lives at home and he’s frustrated with his career. They need a marriage reset. It’s a great and interesting problem and the unfolding of the novel is interesting—just the right combination of surprising and predictable to make it a reasonable read. And, having spent time this year renegotiating some of the balances in our marriage now that I’m (still) working too hard but that our youngest is in school and the demands of parenting have changed, too, I was interested in their problems.

But I was disappointed to see Northampton, Mass. given a fake name: after all the pleasures of recognition in Goodbye, Columbus, I felt the lack in Gone (which I read first) all the more keenly: why not name the town where the poor, obese white client lives? The juxtaposition of poverty with the appealing, fancy, yoga-and-tolerance filled communities of the Happy Valley are one of the most interesting things about that region.

More than that, again and I again I found sentences that I wanted tighter and assumptions that I wanted looser. Too often characters are identified by their census categories and shown to be lovable for conforming to what we expect of the black teen mom, the plump chatty Jewish lady, the hippie white girl in the coffee shop. It was never offensive, but it felt lazy and unimaginative. When Eve plays her “game” of trying to see if she can find twenty people in the food court who do not need to lose twenty pounds, I hated her. Listen, Eve, I wanted to scream, stop being so judgy!

Still, as a fictional counterpart to those lifestyle pieces about families where the wife outearns the husband, Gone held my interest even as it made me feel like I’d be boxed into one of Eve’s narrow categories: just another tired mommy in the food court who could stand to lose a few pounds.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Goodbye, Columbus; Hello, Newark

When we moved from Jersey City out to South Orange not quite two years ago, my friend Lenny, who’d been in nearby Millburn for a while, took me under his wing, driving me around, taking me to lunch in various spots around Essex County.

We were talking about Short Hills and he said, in passing, that of course I’d read Goodbye, Columbus. But I hadn’t. I didn’t know it and didn’t know that it was all about a version of the very move we had just made, for it’s the tale of Neil Krugman, a young worker in the Newark Public Library, and his love affair with Brenda Patimkin of Short Hills.

It’s a wonderful story about a summer romance across class barriers—funny and sharp and sweet. And there is a great, jolly pleasure in reading the real names of the towns that I pass through every day on my commute in to the city—to listen to Neil look at the Lackawanna Train—which then went into Hoboken but now is my train into Penn Station—and imagine the commuters from Maplewood and the Oranges, whizzing through Newark on their way to New York.

Philip Roth published Goodbye, Columbus in 1959 and so I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but if you’ve never read it or haven’t read it in a while, let me tell you, this novella is a great little summertime read.

Thursday, July 26, 2012


Indeed, if we want to describe a summer evening, the way to do it is to set people talking in a room with their backs to the window, and then, as they talk about something else, let someone half turn her head and say, A fine evening’ (Woolf E3 239). 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


It’s been a hard month at Fernham. I was so excited to turn in the first submission of Mrs. Dalloway in January. Making the revisions in May, however, was less exciting. Still, I thought we were moving closer to proof stage. I worked around the clock, as hard as I know how, sure that I was making progress toward a book. Now, it turns out that what I’ve done has to go to the series editors one more time and then to the Advisory Board. The goal posts haven’t just moved, they have receded from sight. I’m not sure why I didn’t understand the process, but it’s considerably lengthier and more involved than with my first book.

The good news is that the series editors tell me that what they’ve seen is good.

The good news, for you, is that this will make for a better book.

The bad news is that I am beyond done with thinking about this project. The bloom is off the rose, the flowers have wilted, and I’m ready to quit. On top of everything else, the editors are also asking me to excise all my Americanisms. Not knowing what those are, I’ve asked them, with all due respect, to do it themselves.

In the end, this is probably only a two-month delay, but I’m so discouraged that it feels like this book is never going to be done. Sometimes, unfortunately, the scholar’s life is even less than it’s cracked up to be.

Still listening

Just about the most romantic song I know.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day & Mrs. Dalloway

This Memorial Day, I’m doing what I’ve been doing for most of this year: working on the final details of my edition of Mrs. Dalloway. While the big push was for first submission in January, I have now received comments on my work from the editors and need to incorporate those corrections by Thursday, so this is another moment of stressed and constant working on details.

To honor those soldiers who have died at war, I offer part of one more footnote from my forthcoming edition of the novel. This one is on the models for Septimus Warren Smith, the novel’s veteran. What struck me, in writing this footnote, was the overwhelming abundance of young men Woolf had to choose from in painting a portrait of a shell-shocked soldier grieving for the death of his friend (and this footnote doesn't even mention Woolf's brother-in-law, Philip Woolf, injured by the shell that killed his brother Cecil. Upon seeing Philip shortly after, Woolf wrote: ‘I can imagine that he is puzzled why he doesn’t feel more’ (D1 92), a thought she gives to Septimus in the novel:

Septimus Warren Smith [….] Critics have linked Septimus to real life soldiers whom Woolf knew, including Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, Ralph Partridge, and Gerald Brenan. For more on these real-life models for Septimus, see Introduction. Steinberg suggests T. S. Eliot as another possible model for Septimus, noting Woolf’s intimacy with him at the time. Eliot’s hasty marriage to Vivenne Haigh-Wood came just after the death of his friend Jean Verdenal at Gallopoli (8-9), a circumstance that parallels Septimus’s hasty marriage after Evans’s death. (Verdenal is the dedicatee of Eliot’s 1914 ‘The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock’.) [….]

I repeat my daily prayer with extra fervency this Memorial Day: Honor the dead. Work for peace.

Also: This old post on women and war might be worth revisiting on Memorial Day:

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

Songs evoke memories, sure. Every day I listen to music and every day a song reminds me of some earlier self. But twice this week, Lucinda Williams’ great song, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” has come on the radio and has brought me back not just to a period, but to an eerily precise time and place.

In August of 1998, I drove my little 4-door Civic from my beloved home in
Cambridge to Lafayette, Indiana, to take my first tenure-track job at Purdue. Driving behind me, in his nicer 4-door darker blue Civic was my boyfriend. As the land got flatter and Boston receded, I could see his terror mounting. Why, I could feel him thinking, have I followed this woman away from the East?

I had found a charming apartment: the top floor of a Victorian house facing a tiny pocket park on the top of a hill. Unfortunately, the prior tenants refused to leave in time. When I called the landlady to insist on our rights, she demurred: “He’s from India,” she explained by way of apology. “I think he’s a rajah!”

Rajah or no, I wanted in to our new apartment, but there was nothing to do. The moving company left our stuff in the garage and our landlady put us up in a vacant apartment a few blocks away. This apartment was a tiny one bedroom in a largely abandoned small apartment building with a distinctly Sunset Boulevard feel. One vacant apartment in the same building had a ballroom with French doors leading to a small garden. Although I’d seen it when I was apartment-hunting and had been momentarily charmed by the faded glamour and the promise of parties to come, in the end, it was too much to live up to. My boyfriend and I had never lived together before, and it seemed like a bad omen to move into a house that reminded me of Miss Havisham.

Nonetheless, there we were, in the very building I had known to avoid, in a tiny furnished apartment, waiting for the rajah and his girlfriend to move out.

Guilty, our landlady had stocked the fridge with cold cuts. I had never seen so many in my life. We had a pound of roast beef, a pound of turkey, a pound of corned beef, a pound of ham, a pound of swiss, and a pound and a half of American, a loaf of bread, some mayonnaise, and a jar of yellow mustard.

No sooner had we arrived, then my boyfriend had to head off on a sad errand: to the Mayo Clinic to be with his family while his dad underwent treatment for the cancer that would kill him a year later. He lived to see us married, but not much more.

Alone with a boombox and pounds and pounds of sliced meat, I spent my days planning my classes and listening to Lucinda Williams on a bulky black boombox:

Can't find a damn thing in this place
Nothing's where I left it before
Set of keys and a dusty suitcase
Car wheels on a gravel road
Child in the backseat about four or five years
Lookin out the window
Little bit of dirt mixed with tears
Car wheels on a gravel road

I wouldn’t want to live through that week again, and I couldn’t have made it without that song.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

It's an honor just to be nominated....

Here's a little bit of good news for International Women's Day: My blog post on rape for Guernica is a finalist for the 3 Quarks Daily blog prize! Thanks for voting. Wish me luck with the judging!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


...pour mieux sauter.

Some cross-country skiing. A renewed commitment to health. Yoga DVDs. Checking back in with friends.

#dalloway took her toll.

I'll be back soon.

Monday, January 30, 2012

One last draft footnote

31:9 Princess Mary Princess Mary (1897-1965) was the third child and only daughter of George V and Queen Mary. She married Viscount Henry Lascelles (1882-1947) on February 28, 1922. Lascelles had been an early suitor of Vita Sackville-West and would be the model for the Archduke Harry in O. Michael North notes that, for many people in England, this royal wedding was a sign that the war was finally over (5). Woolf took a passing interest in the wedding ‘Please tell me why Pr. Mary married Ld. Lascelles’ (L2 511). Later Clarissa's maid Lucy imagines herself as attending Princess Mary (59). 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Happy Birthday, Miss Jan

Adeline Virginia Stephen, later Virginia Woolf, was born on this day in 1882. One of her family nicknames was Miss Jan, on account of her January birthday. In the Monday 21st December [1891] issue of the Hyde Park Gate News, young Virginia, nearly 10, this fictional love letters, part of a regular series in the HPGN:
My own Tom I love you with that fervent passion with which my father regards Roast beef but I do not look upon you with the same eyes as my father for he likes Roast Beef for its tast [sic] but I like you for your personal merits.
Happy Birthday, Miss Jan!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Draft footnote of the day: the green dress

58:14-15 By artificial light the green shone The green dress that becomes magical by artificial light reverses a distressing memory of a green dress gone wrong: ‘Down I came one winter’s evening about 1900 in my green dress […] All the lights were turned up in the drawing room; and by the blazing fire George sat, in dinner jacket and tie, cuddling the dachshund [….] He said at last: “Go and tear it up”’ (MB 151).

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Draft footnote of the day: red flowers in Flanders Fields

104:19-20 Red flowers grew through his flesh John McCrae’s 1915 poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ commemorates the fact of red poppies blooming abundantly in battlefields that saw some of the heaviest casualties during World War One: ‘In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row’ (1-2). Line six begins ‘We are the dead.’ Since 1920, the red poppy has been a symbol of remembrance of the war dead.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Not her most charitable mood, but sometimes I find myself thinking something similar about those #occupy kids. Yeah, they're my heroes, but they're kind of weird...
266:20 Hampstead Village in North London dating from the eighteenth century, where artists and freethinkers have resided. The poet John Keats, who, like Jim Hutton, Woolf imagines in red socks, lived in Hampstead from 1818-1820 (see EN 265.28). He wrote ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ there. Adjacent is the preserved open space of Hampstead Heath. Cf. ‘It’s unfortunate the civilization always lights up the dwarfs, cripples, & sexless people first. And Hampstead provides them’ (D 1:110; 21 January 1918).

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Draft footnote of the day: Voltaire

An oldie but a goodie:

77.27-28 getting books sent out to them In 1904, when Leonard Woolf went to Ceylon as a young colonial administrator, he brought with him the complete works of Voltaire in seventy volumes (Glendenning 66).

Monday, January 09, 2012

Draft footnote of the day: Albanians

181:8 Albanians Albania, too, was in the news at this time, although for far different reasons than Armenia and with much less public sympathy from Britain. By 1921, Albania was bankrupt, having been at war continuously since 1910. The discovery of oil led the British-based Anglo-Persian Oil Company to send significant financial support to Ahmed Zogu. Zogu was elected prime minister in 1922, then, president in 1925. In 1928, Albania became a monarchy and Zogu, its king, Zog I. See Vickers.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

This morning's mystery

I'm off to read 'The Rape of Lucrece' for Mrs. Dalloway and it strikes me as a pretty grim task. I was summarizing Cymbeline yesterday, trying to describe how Imogen's husband makes a bet that she is faithful, sets up a friend to test her, and he sneaks into her bedroom and spies on her while she's asleep. Later he pretends to have raped her.

Then, I spent all that time re-reading Clarissa last spring which is all about rape.

And the other Clarissa in literature is the rapist's accessory in 'The Rape of the Lock.'

And Jane de Gay's book pointed me to the links between Clarissa's thought that there will be no more marrying and Hamlet's 'Get thee to a nunnery' speech.

So why, I want to know, is Clarissa Dalloway's happy memory of love also Othello's feeling? Why, when she remembers feeling in love, does she remember the feeling of a lover who will become a murderer, a man who will go mad from suspicion of his wife's infidelity?

Looked at from this angle, the violence and the threat of rape seems to be in too many places with no one untainted.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Draft footnotes of the day: The Tempest & Cymbeline

Jane de Gay's excellent book led me to look again at Ariel's song in The Tempest. Earlier, I had heard 'those are pearls that were his eyes' more strongly through Eliot's quotation of it than through Shakespeare himself. Jane's work taught me to think differently and led me to a great dog footnote too. Enjoy.
61:18 Fear no more From Cymbeline. See EN 16:23. See also 46:26, 211:1. Jane deGay notes that Woolf’s earlier allusion to Ariel’s song from The Tempest (47:21) informs this allusion to Cymbeline: ‘Fear no more says the heart, committing its burden to the sea’ (61:18-19). Both songs are dirges sung for characters presumed dead who turn out to be alive (de Gay 89). See also EN:61:24. 
61:24 the dog barking See The Tempest: ‘Hark, hark! | burthen dispersedly, [within]. Bow-wow. | The watch-dogs bark! (1:2:381-383). This, from the first half of Ariel’s song, closely follows the combined allusion to Cymbeline and The Tempest above (61:18).

Monday, January 02, 2012

Shakespeare, the sun to our little moons

One of the puzzles in writing footnotes to Mrs. Dalloway is that the direct allusions don't necessarily correlate to the writers who most influenced Woolf. This makes a lot of sense--we often talk a lot about influences that bother us and talk seldom at all about those who are so important to us that they run in our veins. Still, one of my challenges as an editor has been to think about ways to depict this accurately. Woolf herself offers an explanation for this phenomenon in this discussion of Shakespeare from the 1924 essay ‘Indiscretions’: 
‘Of Shakespeare we need not speak. The nimble little birds of field and hedge, lizards, shrews and dormice, do not pause in their dallyings and sporting to thank the sun for warming them; nor need we, the light of whose literature comes from Shakespeare, seek to praise him’ (E 3:463)
It's a beautiful metaphor. I've certainly found a lot more Shakespeare than I expected in Mrs. Dalloway and, thank to other critics, will be able to cite many more.

Mocking James

Nothing is better than when Virginia Woolf gets going on Henry James. (We have played this game before.) This is from a review of a very bad-sounding book of reminiscences of 19th c. novelists by Molly MacCarthy:
'through the drawing-room door we may hear the reverberation of Mr. Henry James, who, seeing the end of his sentence in the distance, with uplifted hand and rumbling fence of sound wards off intruders.' (E 3 444).

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Hello, TR; Hello 2012

Why not start the year with more dark comedy? This from a review by Woolf of a book on Teddy Roosevelt. 'Body and Brain' is the title of the review & Woolf's point is that TR, unlike many politicians, clearly possessed both:

When he was President of the United States a cowboy came up to him and said, ‘Mr. President, I have been in jail a year for killing a gentleman.’ ‘How did you do it?’ asked the President, meaning to inquire as to the circumstances. ‘Thirty-eight on a forty-five frame,’ replied the man, thinking that the only interest the President had was that of a comrade who wanted to know with what kind of tool the trick was done.’ No other President, it is said, from Washington to Wilson, would have drawn that answer. (E 3:225)