Google Coincidence


The other night, I was re-reading Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid.” A provocative and funny title for a really thoughtful piece on how our thinking may be changing—really, profoundly changing—with our increasing reliance on computers. I really love that essay for the care with which it weighs the good and the bad of Google. Carr writes: “The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes.” I feel that profoundly, too. Much as I love the hours and hours that I’ve logged in the stacks and in the reading rooms of great libraries, it’s exciting and a lot easier to find the stuff so fast.

I turned from Carr to Woolf, to reread her essay “The Russian Point of View.” I’m rereading The Common Reader in its entirety for my talk in Uruguay and for the Dalloway edition. As I read, I come upon one of Andrew McNeillie’s footnotes from 1984: “This reference has resisted all efforts at discovery.”

It’s a wonderful footnote and one I’ve long admired. McNeillie is a fabulous editor and, in days before Google, he tracked down dozens and dozens of allusions, translated Greek, and generally showed the seams of Woolf’s work so that scholars like me could trace her sources and hear her allusions. And, this note, to a bland quote from one of Chekhov’s over 100 stories, seems fair: it’s the only time in the whole book when McNeillie just gives up.

So, of course, I typed the phrase “such conversation as this between us would have been unthinkable for our parents” into Google. First hit? “Anton Chekhov, A Doctor’s Visit, trans. Constance Garnett”—of course, the very translation Woolf used. Second hit? Virginia Woolf, 

Cool.

Tallying Summer


After seven weeks away, seven hours from home, six of them spent in our customary little rented cottage just four doors down from my mother-in-law’s, on the shores of the mighty St. Lawrence River, I am surprised by what I missed and what I did not miss about city living:

I did not miss:
  • podcasts
  • NPR
  • television
  • the news in any form
  • running errands
  • calculating the commute time
  • a feeling of constant hurry and competition 

I missed
  • really good cheese
  • fresh produce (up there, it’s a private culture: people have gardens, not farmer’s markets, and the tomatoes were only just arriving as we left)
  • music at dinnertime (somehow, not a habit of my mother-in-law’s at the River, though she listens to it in her home in winter)
  • seeing people on the street who look interesting, look like people I’d like to meet

I am fond of traffic, of street noise, of the subway. I am fond of waking at 4 AM to the sound of an owl, of the sound of waves hitting the shore. I like going for a run and checking on the osprey nest. I like going on a run and smiling at the nervous tourists in line for the Statue of Liberty Cruise. I have beloved friends and family in both spots and, in both spots, I am delighted to run into them. I feel profoundly at home in both places.

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.


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. 

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

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

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

My costume involves peacock feathers.

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

What's not to like?

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

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

Readings by Tao Lin and Willie Perdomo

Free Drinks from 6-7pm!

Holiday Costume Contest

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)

Not about Virginia Woolf: Fiction Conference at Fordham University


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

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

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

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

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

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

Omit Needless Words

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

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

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

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

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

Woolf and the City at the Merc

I'll be leading a Reading Group at the Mercantile Library in New York leading up to the Woolf Conference in June. We'll read four Woolf novels and talk about Woolf & the city:
Mondays: April 6, April 20, May 4 and May 18
6:00pm–7:30pm

Led by Anne Fernald
$50 for members; $65 for nonmembers
Virginia Woolf made a permanent mark on London when she left the staid neighborhood of her birth and moved to Bloomsbury in 1904. This group will focus on Woolf as a city writer: how the city inspired her imagination and how she chronicled its many aspects. This focus allows us to celebrate Woolf’s London, to explore how she turned her daily walks into adventures, and to discuss the place of the city in our imagination. For April 6, please read Mrs. Dalloway. We will read Orlando, Flush, and The Years in subsequent weeks.
Click here to sign up!

Frog and Toad Are Friends

I’d like to sing a little ode
about my good friend Toad,
Toad with whom I frequently take tea.

He’s not so good at sports,
and of course he’s got those warts
but Toad has been a lovely friend to me.
We took the girls to “A Year with Frog and Toad” at the Atlantic on Saturday. It was so adorable—nearly as good as last year’s awesome “Really Rosie.” The Atlantic’s children’s theater is so great. First, it’s affordable ($50 for 4 tickets—that’s practically free in NYC terms). Then, the theater itself, an old brick church, is both grand and homey. It makes the matinee into an occasion. (Pics here.)

But the songs are so charming. The opening song of friendship is all charm: admitting that one’s friend has warts but “has been a lovely friend to me” captures many deep and important ideas about friendship all in one: flaws, “loveliness”—that gentle, important, grounding quality, and then “to me,” because friendship is ours and special: it doesn’t matter if you don’t get it, he’s been my friend.

My kindergartener was delighted that some of the episodes she knows from her I Can Read books were featured in the show.

And the song, later in the show, about the pleasure of eating cookies is totally exuberant and joyous: Like the happiest love song ever, but song to the pleasure of gorging on cookies!
Eating cookies
Eating cookies
We’re so happy eating cookies
Cookies cookies cookies we adore….
The children were rapt.

I was interested to see Mark Linn-Baker thanked in the program. I always loved that silly sitcom, “Perfect Strangers,” and I liked him in it. It made me happy to think of him as a working actor, supporting this little venture.

But this morning, downloading the soundtrack for the kids on iTunes, I see that he originated the role of Toad on Broadway (the baby’s hands-down favorite character; the big girl just loved it all). What’s more, his wife Adrianne is the daughter of Arnold Lobel, the author of the Frog and Toad books. So three cheers for Mark Linn-Baker! And three cheers for great children’s theater in Chelsea.

Their run was extended for 2 weeks: this coming weekend is the last: call quick to reserve your seat!

PHOTO: Ahron R. Foster from the Playbill site.

Metaphor: Bad prose and inspiration

I'm growing weary of the abundance of post-its on my computer monitor, so I'm trying to take them down today. (Don't worry, it doesn't take long the for the clutter to reaccumulate...) And, while I don't often blog about my students or my teaching, two of the little scraps I'm tossing seem worthy of sharing.

First, from a textbook, for the BLOCK THAT METAPHOR file:
"In reality personal and professional ethics share some common ground and this makes the perceived clash between the two easier to digest."
All last year, I worked one-on-one with an ESL student. Mostly, we marched through readings from class. The textbooks were so badly written and so abstract that I could see where the struggles came. This sentence was so difficult to parse and it yielded so little meaning (ethical behavior at work overlaps with individual ethics? really? stop the presses!), that I couldn't stop laughing and I copied it down just to remind myself how not to write, how much were were asking of our students.

Then, from an application, a wonderful moment of heroic rhetoric right here in the 21st century: "Like Leonidas at Thermopylae, my grandfather did not stop fighting..."

ISO: Writers Who Read Woolf

At the 19th Annual International Virginia Woolf Conference (June 4-7, 2009, Fordham University, Lincoln Center), I want to feature some creative writers who will talk about Woolf's influence, for good and ill, on their work. I especially want those writers to not be all nice white women. If you or someone you know has an interest in participating, please be in touch with me and my graduate assistant at our conference address, woolf@fordham.edu.

We are already planning a plenary panel, hosted by Katherine Lanpher, host of Barnes & Noble’s “Upstairs at the Square” featuring three artists and activists influenced by Woolf.

The conference will have about 225 attendees, Woolf scholars and English professors, mostly, but also students and common readers. We will have about 30 90-minute concurrent sessions (about 5 per session; about 6 sessions over the 4 days). Most of these will be reserved for academic papers, but everyone really enjoys the option to attend a reading and discussion in lieu of another panel on theory and Woolf.

Several creative writers have already submitted proposals to read but I am actively seeking more. I am especially interested in hearing proposals from men, from writers of color, and from anyone who reads Woolf but does not simply worship at her shrine.

So, if you’re a creative writer and would like to give a brief (15-20 minute) reading on a panel with other writers, please do consider submitting a proposal. You can find the Call for papers here. You can read anything you like, but your proposal should articulate how your work connects to Woolf and you should be prepared to discuss that in the Q & A.

The conference will have a book exhibit, staffed by Bluestockings Bookstore. We will be happy to have them stock your book.

The Untelling

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

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

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

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

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

The Pleasures of Zigzag & Kite Runners

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

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

Mondegreen

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

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

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

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

Do you have a favorite?

The Twin Towers

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

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

More on Nana’s Books

When Nana’s books came, my father was very kind and clear: I was only to keep what I wanted and needed. There was no need to preserve her library intact or to keep books of little value for sentimental reason. Her library was good in its contents, but most of the paperbacks had come unglued from neglect and bad weather. His kindness and my studio apartment helped me winnow the boxes down to a more reasonable bounty (though you would never know that from the mammoth library that burdens us in our little apartment today).

One book that I kept, then got rid of, and now regret giving away was my Nana’s Milton in one volume.

It was the Bobbs-Merrill Milton, the same one I had used in college. And disliking Milton as I think I do (I suspect that he intimidates me more than I dislike him) and having my own college notes in the margin of my copy, it seemed strange to keep another copy of the very same book simply for sentimental reasons.

Except for one thing: it was all marked up with my Nana’s notes. The notes she made as she was losing her sight.

And the one note that made the book radioactive to me at twenty-four is the note that makes me now curious to see what else was there: Randomly, in the margins of Paradise Lost, Nana wrote “Why doesn’t Graham [my father] make Anne learn Latin?”

Somehow, back then, my mother and I pieced together that this had to have been written when I was seven or eight, around the time that my Nana pronounced, to my young mind, my failure as a writer. For, visiting her down in Florida, I showed her a short story I had written, heavily indebted to Hans Christian Andersen, about a little mermaid. She took out that Bobbs-Merrill Milton and turned it to Milton’s juvenilia: “Here’s a poem Milton wrote in Greek when he was six. Well, this is the Latin translation he made a few years later…”

I threw in the towel.

And, at 24, I threw the Milton in the recycling.

After all, a girl has to live.

I was told there’d be cake

I remember all the snark directed at Sloane Crossley when this book came out: lots of jealousy, it seemed to me at the time. Let the woman have her day in the sun. Still, jealous myself, perhaps, I didn’t exactly rush out to buy the book either. Then, I saw a friend with it: there is still something so persuasive about that, isn’t there? I can read a dozen blog entries about a book and simply be aware that it exists, that people are writing about it, but seeing the object in the hands of someone you like really does make it seem like people are reading it.

I bought it the other day at Three Lives and read it on the train upstate (don’t ask me how—I did feel like a negligent, classic academic mother, foisting crayons and video games onto my children whilst stage-whispering “play with each other, Mommy’s reading”). It’s really, really charming and funny.

She is very young and the essays are almost all tours de force about how to make an uneventful and privileged life into material to write essays about. Still, the long set piece about being bridesmaid to an old, nearly-forgotten friend is both touching and hilarious. And there is a brief discussion about the boorish and homophobic boyfriend of a good friend and how Crossley pushed back when he made his guffawing comments about lesbians that’s really lovely and so familiar. There are a couple essays about wanting to be interesting—one about her name and one about her collection of plastic ponies--that really resonated with me: I was amazed an impressed that she pulled it off.

Ultimately, for all the wit and cleverness, there is a lovely and consistent note, never quite developed, but always there, of real affection for other women. She is proud of and tender about her sister; affectionate and admiring of her mother; fiercely attached to her female friends. For all the moments in which she remembers the Cat’s Eye competition among young women, she never relinquishes the belief that women are allies. Sad, then, that what I remember of the early coverage of the book was a little catty. Am I misremembering out of my own smallness or are we all just as small as that?

Charles Johnson at the Seattle Public Library

The other conference (besides Woolf in Denver), from a month ago now, was the Rhetoric Society of America conference in Seattle. That was lovely, too.

Its highlight was a reading by Charles Johnson, the National Book Award Winner (for The Middle Passage distinguished professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Washington.

I have only read a couple of his stories before—one based on Aesop and “Dr. King’s Refrigerator,” which he read to us--but I had the strong sense that he was my kind of writer. His reading was enchanting. He read two stories that he wrote for an annual literacy benefit in Seattle. Every year, local writers are given a small prompt and asked to write a story to read at the annual benefit. “Dr. King’s Refrigerator,” about the young Martin Luther King staying up late and looking with wonder at the contents of his fridge, noting how interconnected we all are and having an epiphany about social justice and globalism, was written in response to the prompt “midnight snack.”

But the other story, an amazing tale of a sullen and arrogant Plato, grieving the death of Socrates and mocked by Diogenes, was written in response to the prompt “night light.”

Someone asked him something about his inspiration and he said, well, when he got the prompt “night light” he knew that it had to be Diogenes wandering the streets of Athens with a lantern in the daytime in search of an honest man. The clarity of that, the open natural way in which he just assumed that, like himself, we, too, would naturally associate the phrase “night light” with the great philosophers of the height of Athenian democracy amazed and humbled me. A real lesson in the value of writers continuing to read and read and read, in continuing the practice of returning to the past and dwelling there with patience.

Good things, good people

I know you know this already, but I am so excited for Lizzie Skurnick, who has a book contract for her charming series of columns for Jezebel in which she revisits favorite young adult novels. It’s a lovely and fun topic—and a useful one, too—for Lizzie helps keep alive the books that strong women loved as girls and, in doing so, gives new generations of parents a good list to take along to the bookstore and the library.

Lizzie’s columns brought me to Jezebel in the first place and now I read it daily: it always brings me some kind of smile—laugh, giggle, or smirk. It’s a real cut above its parent blog, the once funny but now just mean and parasitic Gawker.

I’ve written already about Meri Weiss’s debut novel, but I’m happy to report that it’s been selected as an August pick by the consortium of Independent bookstores (this used to be BookSense and is now Next List or something).

And I haven’t yet finished Janice Erlbaum’s Have You Found Her, but this trailer sure reminds me why I was so excited about it in the first place.

Finally, Jennifer Vanasco, whom I know only virtually as the founder of a listserv for writers and editors who went to my college, had her first cover story in the Village Voice, on the triumph of the lipstick lesbians.

Congratulations to all four great women!