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.

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.

Bad Bankers, c. 1879

From Olivia Laing's new book, To the River, about a walk up the Ouse. This passage describes Kenneth Grahame's early working life, in the Bank of England, c. 1879:
“the Bank was, by all accounts an exceedingly eccentric place…it wasn’t unusual to come across a clerk in the lavatory butchering the carcass of a sheep bought wholesale in the local market. The lavatories were also used for dogfights, which were so much a part of Bank culture that some of the rougher clerks kept fighting dogs chained in readiness at their desks” (65).

One might write a nostalgic book about rodents in canoes after such an adventure. I'm glad Wind in the Willows emerged from this nonsense. Don't get me started on the bankers of 2011...

Quiet Americans

I took a break from Clarissa last weekend to read my friend Erika Dreifus’s debut collection of short stories, Quiet Americans. It’s a lovely collection of loosely interconnected stories about American Jews and their European roots.

Erika is a historian by training, and you can feel that in the assurance of her voice, her attention to details, the way that every character, every story feels rooted in a precise time and place. The opening story, about a Jewish pediatrician who counted among his patients a child of a top-ranking Nazi is wonderfully tense. The scene in which the doctor is summoned to the Nazi’s office and advised, strongly, to leave Germany is cinematic and haunting. The fact that the doctor heeds the advice, a welcome happy ending.

But all the characters in the book are haunted. Most of these stories are about American Jews with German roots who just barely got out in time (or are the children and grandchildren of those men and women). The survivor’s guilt, the sense of the duty to remember, to protect, to insure that a Holocaust doesn’t happen again, is palpable throughout. These are stories that convey one of the key strains in our culture. For me, they worked best when there is tension within that burden, as in the witty and effervescent last story about a man who becomes obsessed with tracing his own family tree. Less successful, for me, were stories about the 1972 Munich Olympics or the sorry episode of Amiri Baraka’s lost tenure as poet laureate of New Jersey for his nutty, anti-Semitic musings about the root causes of 9/11. Those stories keep alive a grief and a grievance that’s fully justified: I shudder in horror at the thought of those slaughtered athletes and in shame at the way a great poet can fall prey to crackpot ideas. Still, in political fiction, I want more subtlety, an acknowledgment of the real pain that leads people to become violent or even just to believe in conspiracies.

Unqualifiedly wonderful is a story where Erika works a different vein, channeling Isaac Babel or Isaac Bashevis Singer in “Matrilineal Descent,” a moving fable about two sisters in a village in Germany, one plain and hardworking, the other pretty and delicate, and the baker whom they both love.  

Best of all, as others have said, is the title story, “Quiet Americans, or How to Be a Good Guest.” There, the duty to witness battles with a character’s natural reserve richly and powerfully. I approached this story, its title so evocative of Louis Begley or Graham Greene, with some trepidation, fearing it would be a paean to “The Greatest Generation.” Instead, the quiet American is “you,” a young grad student born in the 60s or 70s, visiting Germany for the first time. As she listens to a young tour guide noting, again and again, buildings that were destroyed in the war, never mentioning the lives lost, never acknowledging the Holocaust, the young quiet American grows increasingly frustrated with rage. But what to say? How to interrupt the tour? It’s a wonderful dilemma and the solution is just terrific.

It reminded me of a tour I took, years ago, of a stately home outside Charleston. The tour guide said that the family had taken a “hiatus” to England during the years 1862-1866. Why, asked my friend, also a historian, did the family choose to leave the South during just those years exactly? Hmmm?

In any case, I can highly recommend Erika’s collection. Each story is a gem on its own and, together, they paint a portrait of the enduring European roots of many American Jews, both of the Holocaust and of the culture that the Holocaust tried, but failed, to fully destroy. They are also beautifully written, crafted with care, with a sure voice that has many registers. A great debut.

Call it macaroni

I flew through Elizabeth Bowen’s wonderful novel The House in Paris so fast that I had no time to note it here. Instead, I dove into another Bowen, her first novel, The Hotel. From there, I give you this gem of biting British comedy. Poor Miss Pym has had a fight with her friend and she enters the dining room of the hotel with a tear-stained face, too late for luncheon:
Miss Pym looked diffidently at the waiter. She had cut herself off from the omelette, so he shrugged his shoulders and brought her up a plate of macaroni from the servants’ lunch. This the bruised creature pitifully but with evidence of hunger bagan to eat; the traditional British struggle with macaroni brought her down sharply from tragedy to farce.

Why didn’t I like that book?

I love reading bad reviews—really delicious, mean, pointed reviews, that get at the heart of what a book has gotten wrong—but I don’t like to write them. When I read a book that I don’t like, I’m much more likely to let it passed unremarked than I am to publicly excoriate it and its author. I appreciate—all too well—how hard writing is, so I don’t really want to add pain or disappointment to the world.

Still, I finished a book this week that I just thought was poor and I’m trying to figure out what was wrong with it. Let me, without naming the book, take a crack at the gap between what it was trying to do and what it did.

I’ll start by saying that everything about it should have made me like it: a friend in the book business sent it my way (hoping for publicity, sure, but this friend is judicious and knows my taste), the author and I have a lot in common (same kind of college, love of the same great American lyricist, one of us currently lives in the other’s home town, etc.), and it’s a comic novel, a middlebrow book by a lover of James and Wharton.

So, this is a fast-paced novel, the kind of novel that would make a really good ensemble-cast movie. I read fifty pages, fell asleep, and woke up from a nightmare at 3 AM and, unable to shake the dream, turned on the light and finished the book. But, doing so made me feel a little sad: the writer is clearly so smart and the book is sloppy, unfocused, and unsure of its genre. I can see the hilarious book behind it but this book is not it.

Here are two examples of scenes that misfire: There is a big wedding at the heart of the book. The bride and groom are ill-matched, the wedding is beyond expensive, and the groom has cold feet. As things begin to go wrong, there is an avalanche of the cupcake tower wedding cake. Slapstick is hard to write, but this should be a slapstick scene: full of frosting wrecking expensive shoes, tears, dogs getting sick, laughter, recriminations. To work, it needs to be big and hilarious. But the writer can’t forget that she also likes her characters, cares about them; I can sense her liking them, but we haven’t seen a nice moment from the bride in so many pages that I don’t like her anymore and am not sorry that “her day” is getting spoiled. Thus, the scene neither has enough action nor enough poignance to work.

There is also an injured child. Here, the author does a very very bad writer’s workshop thing: she shows us the child, motionless after a fall, then switches perspective to another character for three pages, then shows us the child, safe and sound with a few stitches in her scalp. Only then, in flashback, does she explain the accident.

Writers: do not do this. This is a very lazy way to create suspense.

There are some icky things going on with race in this lily white book where comic relief comes from the non-whites.

Finally, although there are metaphors and descriptive set pieces in the book, there is no motif—of images, of habits—to let us know the characters and their minds. In fact, the images are so underdeveloped that, in the next paragraph when the author refers back to “the crabwalker” or “the Flatlander,” I always had to slow down and re-read the set up for the reference.

Mark Sarvas does such a good job with the silly but consistent recurrence of the Monte Cristo sandwich in his book. Marcy Dermansky, too, gives Marie a real love of food that remains a touchstone in almost every scene--she is hungry, loving or hating the food and drink, over and over again. 

This book should have been a comic masterpiece, a funny book by a smart person about silly rich people. I would have been better off reading two brilliant examples of the genre: Mark Sarvas’ Harry, Revised and Marcy Dermansky’s Bad Marie. For now, I’m choosing between Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris and Eloisa James’ bodice-ripping retelling of Cinderella: A Kiss at Midnight.

The Letters of Sylvia Beach

All week, we’re celebrating Sylvia Beach. Please drop by for a new post—or two--on Beach every day. And then head to your local independent bookstore and buy a copy of The Letters of Sylvia Beach.

Sylvia Beach might have been a James heroine. She might have been, except that she had the gumption to make a life for herself rather than wallow in an early and ill-considered error.

I’ll admit to finding the opening letters in this edition slow going. It was hard to get my mind accustomed to the rhythms of Sylvia Beach’s mind. They are the ordinary letters of a confident, happy, privileged young woman. Beach’s family was upper-middle class. Her father was a Presbyterian minister in Princeton, New Jersey. The privilege comes not so much out of money—in fact, though she traveled extensively and seems not to suffer from want, many, many letters express the same kinds of small worries and gratitudes about relatively small sums that will be familiar to anyone who has enough—thank you for the $5 for Christmas; can I possibly borrow $1,000 to start my bookstore?

In the early letters, before the U.S. entered WWI, Beach seems to be constantly making elaborate plans for sending gifts of lace and books, giving effusive thanks for receiving pens and nightgowns.

Even when the war begins and the U.S. enters it and Beach goes to Serbia to volunteer with the Red Cross, there remains a spirit of a schoolgirl on holiday. When she plays with words, giving fake Slavic endings to words, it struck a wrong note to my ear: too silly, too goofy, too much of an in-joke of a family.

But, then, too, you hear the intelligence of a woman who could get Joyce’s multilingual play, the joy in being smart. And she writes explicitly about her frustration with the men who mismanage the Red Cross and her own lack of power as a woman volunteer.

Then, the war ends, she decides to stay in Paris, open a bookstore, and falls in love with Adrienne Monnier and, in the course of a couple pages, she is Sylvia Beach: a professional woman, confident and sure of her life.

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote extensively about how the lack of a profession infantilizes women. Sylvia Beach’s letters demonstrate the blossoming of a girl (born in 1887, she was already 30 when writing those girlish letters in 1917) into a powerful, funny woman, negotiating royalties, worrying about James Joyce’s eyesight, and asking permission to bring someone around to meet Gertrude Stein.

All Paris, all the time

“Marie had had it with the City of Lights. The fucking Eiffel Tower. Overpriced baguette sandwiches. Benoît Doniel.”—Marcy Dermansky, Bad Marie

Happy Bastille Day.

It’s a Paris summer here at Fernham. I sit in this hot little rented house, staring out at the hazy St. Lawrence River, thinking and reading about Paris.

In Bad Marie, Marie runs off to Paris, which plays a comic version of the role it plays for James and so many others. At one point, Marie thinks “Everyone was always speaking French. Marie found it maddening.” Later, in a yet darker mood, “The city was impressively landscaped, if nothing else.” At a café, Marie thinks “The beer was cold, good, better than any other beer she had ever drunk before….Caitlin was also happy with her milk, which supposedly was also better. Europe was supposedly a superior continent in so many ways.”

This book was all the funnier coming on the heels of The Ambassadors, where Jamesian versions of these thoughts abound on the lips of the visitors from Woollett.

It’s strange, then, that James asserts in the preface that “Another surrounding scene would have done as well.” And this is the very question that Erika Dreifus takes up in her essay on The Ambassadors, which she was kind enough to send me. There (in The Henry James Review, 25 (2004): 44-51), she writes about setting and the centrality of Paris to the novel from the perspective of a historian, teacher, and fiction writer. 

Another scene would not, could not, do as well—for Marie’s getaway, for Strether’s awakening, for James Baldwin or Richard Wright or F. Scott Fitzgerald or James Joyce or Gertrude Stein.

Or Sylvia Beach.

Which brings me to remind you that I’ll be giving over Fernham for a full week to Sylvia Beach, the proprietor of Shakespeare & Co. and the first publisher of Ulysses. This is in honor of Keri Walsh’s brand new edition of Beach’s letters.

I looked around to see if others were reading and blogging about The Ambassadors and I found two more things of note:

A blogger called Bruce Oksol has a lovely post of his first impressions, including these:
7. Henry James writing style is perfect for learning to diagram sentences (which I doubt anyone does any more). His sentences are very, very long. Likewise, his passages are very long. James can take two pages to say that two people look alike.
8. I have found at least one occasion in which James uses a word that doesn't exist in the English language, but looks like it should. In context, one can almost figure out what James was saying but who knows for sure. 
 and this:
I am 58 years old. The protagonist in The Ambassadors is 55 years old. He and I are asking the same questions.

And The Millions informs me that Cynthia Ozick’s forthcoming novel, Foreign Bodies is a retelling of The Ambassadors. The Times describes it this way:
Cynthia Ozick will return to the subject of families in need of reconciliation in a new novel called “Foreign Bodies.” On Wednesday, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt said it had acquired the book and planned to release it in winter 2011. In a statement, the publisher said the new work, set in postwar New York, Paris and California, “is the story of a divorced schoolteacher who tries to resolve her brother’s family dramas, leading to extraordinary and wholly unanticipated results.”
That seems better than the nonsensical publisher’s blurb that “the plot is the same, [but] the meaning is reversed.”

How can you “reverse” the meaning of a James novel? As E. M. Forster wrote, “it is Paris that gleams at the center…--Paris—nothing so crude as good or evil” (via Erika’s article). What is the opposite of Paris?

Don’t answer that. I think I’ve lived there, too.

Bad Marie

A few years ago, I met Marcy Dermansky at Housing Works and she gave me Cate Blanchett’s copy of her novel Twins.

That is, Marcy had been on her way to a screening and had thought that, perhaps, if she got near enough to Cate Blanchett, she would give her a copy of her book. But, she didn’t get near enough and she met me instead. So my unprepossessing paperback copy bears the distinction of have been intended, albeit somewhat haphazardly, for a movie star. We have since become friends, trading stories of our daughters and going swimming on facebook, so it didn’t take much begging to get her to send along an advance copy of Bad Marie.

There are movie stars in Bad Marie, too. And, like Twins, this is an utterly delightful gobble of a book. I am not a fast reader, but I did gulp this up in a day.

It’s a wonderfully silly book—you have to just go with its utterly improbably donnée: that Marie fell in love with a French novel about sea lions in prison, that her girlhood rival has married the novelist, and that, upon her release from prison, Marie insinuates herself into their lives as the babysitter. Once you’ve gone that far, then following Marie as she hops onto a jet to Paris with the husband and toddler in tow is nothing—and such great fun. I am all in favor of farce, and this book delivers. There is something very La Cage Aux Folles about the whole thing: like one of those crazy French bedroom farce films from the 70s and 80s.

I remember dragging a boy to see Jupiter’s Thigh in 1982, a movie in which adulterous French archeologists jumped in and out of bed with each other on a race to find out what statue a fragment belonged to. All along, it was thought to be the femur of a small statue of Jupiter but, in the movie’s final shot it’s revealed that, all along, it’s been the penis of a larger statue. Dumb, but unforgettable, and kind of worth it. ­Bad Marie is better than that—it’s anything but dumb—but it offers the same kind of wild, reckless pleasure.

I love the first line: “Sometimes, Marie got a little drunk at work.”

I like this scene, a confrontation between Marie and her employer/rival. They are at a restaurant and Marie has just been given notice: “They still hadn’t touched their shrimp rolls. She stared at the fresh plates of steaming hot food, almost helpless before it. She would be unable to make a heroic gesture. She would have to eat everything, drink her beer, order another. She would let Ellen pay for her meal.”

I like Marie’s comparison to life on the run with her bank robber boyfriend and this version of it, toddler in tow: “Marie was stunned by the déjà vu. The leaving fast, the ridiculous thrill of leaving everything behind. This time it was slightly more complicated. Marie was traveling with juice cups and diapers, organic string cheese. A child. A stroller. This must be a sign that Marie must be growing up.”
Wonderful! The skewed perspective of a girl who thinks that her impulsive kidnapping is a step ahead of her impulsive running away years ago. As in Twins, Marcy does a great job of depicting reckless young women, failed by their parents in some fundamental way, trying to grow up, but also following every impulse. Her heroines are not timid girls, ambitious girls, or planners. They see a boy, like him, and take off their shirts. For a quiet girl like me, even reading such a book is a kind of revelation. Really? Do people just do that? I feel like Strether: Oh, it’s too late for me, but, goodness! the things I’ve seen really do show me something about how to live…

What kind of a Review is it?

I have finished James' The Ambassadors and am taking notes and basking in its excellencies. Here is my beloved Lambert Strether, describing how he bides his time in Woollett, Mass., and the extent to which he keeps away from the business which makes Mrs. Newsome and her son Chad so very, very rich. His friend Maria asks if he is involved in the business itself:
‘Oh no, I don’t touch the business.’
‘Only everything else?’
‘Well, yes—some things.’
‘As for instance--?’
Strether obligingly thought. ‘Well, the Review.’
‘The Review?—you have a Review?’
‘Certainly Woollett has a Review—which Mrs. Newsome, for the most part, magnificently pays for and which I, not at all magnificently, edit. My name’s on the cover,’ Strether pursued, ‘and I’m really rather disappointed and hurt that you seem never to have heard of it.’
She neglected for a moment this grievance. ‘And what kind of a Review is it?’
His serenity was now completely restored. ‘Well, it’s green.’
‘Do you mean in political colour as they say here—in thought?’
‘No; I mean the cover’s green—of the most lovely shade.’ 
My favorite is how his "serenity" is "restored" when he can return to the solid ground of describing how pretty his little magazine is. 

Americans in Paris

I have been gobbling The Ambassadors as if it’s a bodice-ripping page-turner. I’ve never had a Henry James phase and I still find him difficult, still find that there are whole paragraphs I have to re-read and even the occasional page that I just let go as too baroque for me to comprehend.

At the same time, I love Strether, the childless widower (neither wife nor dead son are very convincing ghosts—this is distinctly queer James) in his fifties, sent to Paris to bring a young man home. I just cannot get enough of nervous, cautious Strether, who edits a little magazine funded by the young man’s mother back home in Woollett, Mass. Strether falls in love with Paris, just as the young man has, and both men must figure out how to negotiate the charms of Paris as against the formidable powers and cash money represented by Chad’s mother.

In this scene, Chad tries to justify his long absence from Woollett:
He broke out as with a more helpful thought. “Don’t you know how I like Paris itself?” 
The upshot was indeed to make our friend marvel. “Oh, if THAT’S all that’s the matter with you--!” It was HE who almost showed resentment. 
Chad’s smile of a truth more than met it. “But isn’t that enough?”           
Strether hesitated, but it came out. “Not enough for your mother!” Spoken, however, it sounded a trifle odd—the effect of which was that Chad broke into a laugh.
Not enough for your mother indeed.

It’s wonderful when Henry James makes you laugh out loud.

The Problem with The Big Short

I had been wanting to read The Big Short since it was published. I finished it a while back and Michael Lewis’ account of the very few investors who bet against the real estate bubble and won—big—did not disappoint. As you probably know, he follows the stories of a few men, highlighting their quirks and the elements of their personalities that enabled them to take a contrarian view in the midst of a mad market, and, through those stories, tells the story of the subprime mortgage crisis.

I think Michael Lewis means it when he expresses a kind of impotent frustration at the number of readers of his first big book, Liar’s Poker, who read it not as a warning, but as a guide to getting rich. I think he’s sincere, too, when on occasion he laments that all of these contrarian investors used their insight for personal gain; none of them became advocates for regulatory reform.

However, upon reading The Big Short, I wanted nothing more than to figure out how to get rich, too. I didn’t feel moved to write to Senator Menendez to demand stronger regulations on predatory lending; I wondered if I should buy that investment book that one of the guys used to start his own fund. On the one hand, this makes sense. This is America, after all, where, as James Baldwin said, there will never be a strong worker’s movement because there are no workers, only candidates for the hand of the boss’s daughter. That is, we all see ourselves—far too easily—as potential rich people. Furthermore, I’m writing this from Jersey City where Goldman Sachs dominates my skyline and my culture: they buy the trees that beautify the park by our house and their employees use their multi-million-dollar bonuses to scoop up and renovate the brownstones on my block. I, too, would like to own a house one day, and my husband and I, more than once, have thought that, fiscally conservative and middle class as we are, we might be able to benefit somehow from some poor sucker’s inability to make their mortgage payment. Such a sad chance, in fact, might be our best hope to buy a place in this artificially inflated environment.

But what is it about The Big Short that fuels my interest in making money while increasing my sense of impotent despair about the possibility of real financial reform?

I think it’s endemic to the topic and the structure of the book. Lewis tells a story about outlaw heroes, but these men—they are all men, though a few interesting women play bit parts as whistleblowers—are all disaffected insiders. When we do hear about a victim, the story is abbreviated and stereotyped: there is a Mexican strawberry picker with an $800K mortgage, a Vegas stripper who’s flipping multiple homes, and the Jamaican night nurse of one of the bankers who owns multiple houses in Queens. The class, race, and sex-snobbery is not subtle: Lewis makes clear that he feels for these people, but that they are not fit to play with the big boys.

Can’t you just hear the condescension at the Princeton Club?
“Whitley, have you read Mike’s new book? It’s really too much! Do you know that those brokers actually wrote an $800K mortgage for a Mexican strawberry picker?”
“But Sterling, the one that was really over the top was the stripper who was flipping houses on the side!”
“The flipping stripper!”
“I liked the Chinese guy—the one who went to Babson—who thought he was making a killing--”
“Hilarious! That was a great scene—with the Brooklyn guy double-dipping his edamame. Hey, where is Babson again, anyway?”
“Isn’t it in Wellesley?”
“I dated a girl from Wellesley sophomore year. She got to be VP at AIG. Wonder what happened to her….”

A better book, I think, would tell the story at every level: showcasing the stupidity, gullibility, corruption, unmerited optimism all up and down the chain: of the immigrant, the branch officer, that officer’s manager, all the way on up to Tim Geithner and Alan Greenspan. That book might get us storming the barricades. 

Megan Kelso’s Artichoke Tales

The Kelso girls were my good friends in high school. They had a great big house and the best parties in Seattle. I remember going over there on a Saturday night, dancing to the Psychedelic Furs, The Police and Grandmaster Flash while helping Jenny stir up a batch of chocolate chip cookies. These were the parties you dream of: really fun, really wholesome, where sometimes one of the cute boys actually asks you to dance (which, in the 80s meant jumping up and down like a pogo stick in his vicinity).

Megan was younger and smart and mysterious, with a very cool bulletin board covered with gnomic Dylan quotations.

Now, she’s all grown up and coming back out to New York (there were some Brooklyn years in there) from Seattle to celebrate her new graphic novel, Artichoke Tales. I loved her girlhero comic books so much! The ‘zines were sized just like comics and came with paperdolls to cut out on the back. They were masterpieces of 90s girlpower. Then, I gave them to a newly out dyke friend of mine and never saw them again: they are just the kind of books that a feminist covets and wants to keep. Megan writes about strong, independent women, gay and straight, navigating the landmines of war and family strife. It’s deep, powerful, political, and beautiful. Don’t look away. Run toward it.

She is giving a slideshow & booktalk at the Strand this Thursday, June 24, at 7:00 with Kim Deitch. She will also be speaking at Desert Island on Friday at 7:00. I so wish I could go. You should!!!

A happily married woman

For me, one of the chief differences between what I call middlebrow fiction and literary fiction has to do with the degree to which the writing announces itself as writing. It’s impossible to fly through a Woolf novel for the plot: not only are her plots thin, almost event-less in the ordinary, outward sense, but her writing demands your attention. That’s fact—the poetry of Woolf’s prose—has sustained my interest in reading, studying, and writing about Woolf for two decades.

But I also like to read another kind of book, a book like Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance, where the writing is clear and strong and full of careful and apt description but all of that is in the service of telling a story, of exploring how these fictional characters will react to the situations she has imagined for them.

As I said yesterday, most of Someone at a Distance is written with an Orwellian clarity: prose like a windowpane. There are no missteps, no groaners. And there are a few moments of really beautiful prose. For me, these two paragraphs on how a wife comes to rely on a happy marriage were among the most poignant in the book: beautiful, funny, and smart. They come half way through, just before that happy marriage must endure a brutal test, and, knowing what is coming (the hints are strong), the description has all the more power:
A happily married woman acquires the habit of referring everything to, discussing everything with, her husband. Even the smallest things. Like bad coal, for instance. To be able to say, sitting across the hearth from him in the evening: ‘Isn’t this coal bad?’ and to hear him say, looking up from his book at the fire: ‘Awful. Sheer slate,’ is to have something comfortable made out of even bad coal. 
            A loved husband is the companion of companions, the supreme sharer, and a happy wife often sounds trivial when she is really sampling and enjoying their mutual and unique confidence. But in doing it, she largely loses her power of independent decision and action. She either brings her husband round to her way of thinking or goes over to his, and mostly she doesn’t know or care which it is. (210-11)
I love the mid-century, English specificity of bad coal. I don’t know what “sheer slate” means exactly—though we can easily guess the discomfort of a fire that’s not warming us as it should—but it’s funny how right it sounds, even 60 years later: that’s just what one is supposed to say. And Whipple is right to notice how a shared complaint, a regular one against some domestic inconvenience, can reconfirm domesticity in a lovely way. Also wonderful—and characteristic—is the gentle feminist turn in the second paragraph. I feel my own trivialities to be understood and forgiven in that description of how such details are really a “sampling and enjoying” of intimacy. And yet, as Whipple warns, there is a danger—a very specific one—to too much of this. Spending too much time luxuriating in the “us” of a marriage, one risks losing oneself.

Yet, moments later, when Ellen must make a decision without consulting her husband, she “felt she was breaking one of the countless Lillputian bonds that bound her up with Avery.”

One of the challenges of marriage is finding the right balance between coupledom and independence. Clarissa Dalloway manages it by marrying a man who leaves her to be independent; Ellen North chooses to lose herself in a man and, when he shows himself less worthy, she must begin to forge a new life by untangling herself from the webs of the old. What’s lovely in Whipple’s writing here is that she takes the time to describe what it is that Ellen, who seems so plump, ordinary, and sweet, has at stake—to lose and to gain.

Another Persephone Book

Once a month or so, my mom asks me “Have you read Someone at a Distance yet?”

So, when I packed my suitcase to go to Seattle for Easter, I popped Someone at a Distance in my bag, confident that her presence would prompt me to get started on the book. It did and I have. What a lovely novel.

Dorothy Whipple’s 1953 book, reprinted by the amazing Persephone Books, is a really lovely, quiet, devastating bit of domestic fiction. Ellen North, the sweet and generous 43-year-old wife, is at the book’s heart, but the omniscient narration keeps her at a distance. And those very English, decorous distances are a theme of the book, beginning with the twin beds, three feet apart, that furnish the bedroom she shares with her husband Avery. Distances can signify comfort or discord and they do both here.

The book explores the devastation that just one unhappy person can wreak on the lives of the contented middle class. At first, that unhappy person is Ellen’s mother-in-law, a widow who feels that she is far from getting her due in attention from her son, daughter-in-law, and their two teenage children. But, when Mrs. North hires a French girl to live-in as a companion, the plot really sets in motion: Louise's unhappiness is the serpent in Mrs. North's beloved suburban garden.

For the long, slow (but not dull) first half of the book, Whipple spools out, Louise’s grudge against the world and her icy quest to get her due alternating with Ellen’s happy, middle-aged contentment in her garden, her marriage, and her growing children. When Louise finally strikes, the devastation is swift and total. From there, the plot picks up, and the denouement is every bit as riveting as the exposition.

The writing is straightforward, not showy but always apt. There are some occasionally really elegant and deft phrases and Whipple goes into the motives and reactions of each of her characters, major and minor, with tremendous sympathy. The book is a masterpiece of middlebrow fiction: not aspiring to the status of literature, but miles better than most plot-driven psychological novels that keep your local Borders stocked and your neighbors’ reading groups talking. This would be a wonderful book to talk about with a friend.

Or your mom. I’m waiting for mine to call me now so we can…

Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

I told my mom to read The Known World, though I hadn’t read it. My mom had been bugging me to read it and I did. Somewhere in the middle of reading it, I read Tayari’s post about Wench and I knew that it was the next book for my mom and me.

Once again, my mom read it first and loved it. Now I’ve read it, too—and already leant it out to a friend.

Wench is based on a real resort in 1850s Xenia, Ohio where slave masters would take their slave mistresses on vacation. The three-part book focuses on Lizzie, one of four women who come together each summer to share stories and struggles. This is a serious novel but also a pleasurable one—it won’t break your heart and pull out your guts the way some other books about slavery do. Instead, it pulls you in to the incredible friendship among women, the way women need to learn to be true to each other and not depend on men.

What Perkins-Valdez does so amazingly is to offer up the story of all the confusing emotions of a young slave, Lizzie, who becomes her master’s mistress as a teen-ager. What is it she feels for him? Can you call it love when your lover owns you? When, on the last day of your “vacation” he ties you to the porch and leaves you a bowl of water like you’re a dog? Of course, it’s not anything we would want to call love, but it makes you think hard—very hard—about human attachments and marriage. Lizzie’s situation is an extreme version of what marriage was for many women for centuries: total economic dependence, lack of property (of course, a slave was property), utter lack of legal stature, utter lack of rights over one’s own body or to one’s children. If that is your situation and you’re still a human, mightn’t you soften a bit? Find some loyalty or affection for an owner who is attached to you? Find some ways to love and mother your children, to figure out—desperately, anxiously—ways to get your lover-owner to promise to free them?

I’m not surprised that this book is getting a lot of buzz (it's in its fourth printing already, last I heard!): it’s a wonderful story about the power of women, of a mother’s love, of friendship. You can read more about it here and here. And, if you're in New York, you can hear her read--and support Girls Write Now while you're at it--on February 26th.

Mrs. Woolf and the Servants

As I mentioned last week, I finally read (and loved) Alison Light’s brilliant social history, Mrs. Woolf and the Servants. Light’s book opens with a chapter on Sophie Farrell, the Stephen & Duckworth family cook (and thus the cook of Woolf’s childhood) and then largely focuses on Nellie Boxall, Woolf’s cook for 18 years. Boxall, Farrell, and other servants of Bloomsbury become the occasion for meditating on the phenomenon of domestic service.

Until WWII, most women who worked, worked in domestic service but, understandably, the workers’ rights movements that were arising in the 20th century largely focused on waged labor outside the domestic sphere. Through careful excavation, Light, herself the granddaughter of a domestic worker, imagines the intense intimacies of the Victorian and modern home. (Image: Nellie Boxall; Harvard Theater Archives.)

The book was widely reviewed when it came out two years ago, so you’ve probably read all about it already. Still, the story doesn’t get stale. It’s amazing to think of Woolf growing up in a house where she just took off her clothes and let them fall to the floor, where servants cleaned her chamber pot every morning (how wonderful, I think, that I do not have to sleep near a big bowl of urine! One of the perks of the 21st century.), where she never cooked. Or that, when the Woolf’s hired switched to a daily cook in 1929, it was the first time in their lives that they had been alone in their house.

How very strange to think that: that one would live forty-seven years with an employee, a servant, always in the house. No wonder, I think, that the class of servant-employing British (from middle-class up, say), developed a national character of stiff upper lips and discretion. If someone else knew all my intimate details, everything about my body and its functions, I would develop some secrets in other parts of my life, too.

If you’re interested in others’ opinions on Light’s wonderful book, you might look to Mona Simpson in The Atlantic. I especially admired the way that she flipped the linkage between Orwell and Woolf (which usually goes to Orwell’s advantage) here:
Orwell’s relation to coal production remained abstract, whereas Woolf would see her own dinner cooked, her underwear scrubbed, and her chamber pot from the night before emptied and washed. Domestic work has always put the people doing the work and the ones benefiting from it in a deeply intimate and unequal relationship. Woolf needed to hire a woman in order to write. None of us, least of all a woman given to inward examination, wishes to think that the emotional conditions necessary for her to do the work she loves involve some form of oppression. These messy feelings of guilt and dependence may have been Woolf’s obstacle in depicting Nellie. Light’s book proves one thing that could not have been the problem: it wasn’t that Woolf didn’t love her enough.
 By contrast, I was quite disappointed with the conclusion of Claire Messud’s review in the Times. She writes "As readers, we must be grateful that Virginia had the good fortune to have help — she was so emotionally delicate that she would have written little without it."
I don’t think that emotional delicacy is the issue. In a house without toilets or central heating or a washing machine, where the oven had no gauges and temperatures had to be checked by sticking an arm in, without refrigeration, where food came daily, delivered by any number of sellers, it’s hard to imagine anyone managing to wash and iron clothes, tend the fire in the hearth and the kitchen, cook and clean meals and also write Mrs. Dalloway. I’m surprised that Messud is so unfair to Woolf—and in such a boring, antifeminist way.

There’s a nice post at the McNally Jackson blog, too. And Paula Maggio offered a great round-up of reviews, blog posts, and interviews back in 2008.

Alison Light, at last

Many years ago, I was at a conference in Oxford, feeling quite pleased with myself. My paper had gone well, I had made friends, I had spoken at Oxford! At the end of the day, I sat down next to a new acquaintance to await the last plenary talk. “Have you read Forever England?” My seatmate asked. I had not, but I was full of that anxious mix of adrenaline, confidence, and fear, so, to my regret I said “I heard it’s not very good.”

Alison Light was seated directly behind me, not seven inches back.

I was so ashamed that I think it deterred me from reading not only Forever England but also her more recent book, Mrs. Woolf and the Servants which I have finally finished, to my delight.

I think, in retrospect, I know, what—beyond callow youth and idiocy—made me dismiss the first book: Light is a more of an historian than a theorist and it would have been fashionable for me to look askance at a book chronicling forgotten conservative women writers between the wars. Ironically, this is the very kind of book that will be useful to me in upcoming projects.

I’ll write about Mrs. Woolf and The Servants in a future post, but before I do, I wanted to offer a little apology to the world for having been such a dope in front of the writer.