In Praise of Cottages, Makeshift, and the Commons

Ramp Hollow cover.JPG

I like to listen to long books and this summer’s listen was Steven Stoll’s Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia. Stoll is a colleague of mine at Fordham and it was exciting to see his book so favorably reviewed in the Times, so I put it on my list and, in the summer heat when running gets really slow and arduous, I started listening.

Readers of this blog know that I’m a Woolf scholar, not an economic historian. My literary criticism is always historical in its focus, and I have a lifelong interest in history, but I’m an amateur, and again and again, listening to this book, I was reminded of all the assumptions I’ve accepted that, in Stoll’s account, I’m questioning anew. So this isn’t a review so much as an appreciation for what excellent history can teach and do. I learned so much and it gave me a lot to think about. There are indeed downsides to audiobooks—sometimes I long to know how to spell a name, to see one of the several paintings he describes so vividly, such as Winslow Homer’s “Veteran in a New Field.” Even so, there is something powerfully immersive about spending forty minutes at a time, while under some cardiac stress, thinking about all that Alexander Hamilton (or any other of what Dwight Garner rightly notes as the book’s many villains) got wrong about the region.

(One of the things I loved about the book was the truly amazing and rich range of sources upon which Stoll draws: theories of capital from Adam Smith to the present, case studies of makeshift lives from Mali and the Philippines, novels and painting, scholarship by a diverse range of authors—women, people of color, 17th to 21st century writers.)

Winslow Homer, "The Veteran in a New Field."

Winslow Homer, "The Veteran in a New Field."

Stoll’s alternate account of the history of Appalachia is eye-opening: he goes all the way back to the story of enclosure in England to teach us to think of a makeshift economy as an alternative to capitalism, not as a stage on the way to it. So pervasive, Stoll shows, are our evolutionary metaphors for capital that we don’t really have a way to describe or understand people who live on the land without capitalizing every inch of it. In fact, for homesteaders before the civil war, a viable tract of land for a family was considered to be about 400 acres, only about 10% of which would be cultivated. The rest of the land, forest and meadow, operated as an ecological base and a kind of commons: it provided timber for housing and fences, grazing for animals, and food could be foraged and hunted there. Because that land was not capitalized, whatever it gave benefited the household and if it took—if, for example, free ranging cattle were eaten by a bear—was not a devastating loss. People living this way, where money is not everything but just a part of life, useful when you want, say sugar or calico or a pretty toy, but not necessary for survival, can manage when something terrible happens—a war, a drought, a fire, a crop failure.

I spend my summers in Clayton, New York. It’s on the Canadian border, in Thousand Islands region, near Fort Drum—the site of 45’s recent signing ceremony of the military spending bill named in honor of the (unnamed) Senator John McCain, in the North Country. That is to say, I’m in a touristy pocket of a poor and conservative region: farmland with a military base and a strong presence of Amish people. Three days a week, on the way home from yoga, I stop at the Amish farm stand and buy vegetables. Every day, I check on the progress of the vegetables I’m growing. When we started coming here, twenty years ago, the local businesses were pretty humble and catered to lower middle class tourists. Now, with more affluent visitors, we have a food co-op with organic meat, a brew pub, and several distilleries. Local shops are touting their support of each other—the brew pub serves pizza, but the fancier restaurants carry the brewery’s beer. The cheese shop even occasionally carries the organic cheese of a local competitor.

In this rural context, removed from my usual life commuting between New York and the Jersey suburbs, it is so much easier to see all that urbanites—like Hamilton—get wrong about Appalachia and to see, too, that, while it will take work and commitment and major political and structural changes, a better life for rural people, one based on a village economy, not outside capitalism but not wholly dependent on it either, makes sense.

You can watch Stoll talk about his book on CSPAN. You can listen to Stoll interviewed on WNYC here. You can read Dwight Garner’s NYT review here.

Rosamond Bernier!!

I won’t have the order of this quite right, but I know that I have Rosamond Bernier’s not-to-be-missed memoir on my shelves because Emma Straub, Lauren Cerand, and my father were all raving about it.

But then, in another mood, I hesitated to read a book about a fabulously wealthy woman—it seemed trivial, out of key with my own struggles and with the work I was trying to do.

Of course, moods change, and this summer with no Dalloway deadlines, I thought I might dip into something light. (As you can see, from what’s been appearing here, it’s been fairly light fare all month.)

Born to a wealthy family (her mother was English and died when Bernier was quite young, her father, an American Jew), Bernier grew up in and around the Philadelphia Orchestra. She dropped out of college to marry Lewis Riley, Jr. She lived with him in Mexico City where she became acquainted with Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Malcolm Lowry. Her musicianship and acquaintance with composers, conductors, and artists, set her on her amazing life path, from features editor for American Vogue to founding editor of L’OEIL to esteemed lecturer on fine arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Bernier writes affectionately of her brief first marriage and with tremendous, joyous wonder of her happy, third marriage to the art critic John Russell. The second husband is only mentioned as the source of complications. It’s a kind of social death for him through very controlled, polite restraint. Curious and sad, but not to be dwelt on when there is so much joy and genius all around her and she is so generous and funny about it.

Bernier is clearly the kind of woman to whom amazing, exciting things happen. The striking cover photo of her in a lovely satin slip, lounging in a four-poster bed came about one night when she couldn’t find any lodging in rural France one night in 1947—nothing, until the man she had come to interview offered her the chance to spend the night in Madame de Sevigné’s bed.

The book is beautifully written and full of amazing anecdotes—stories of what Picasso said to her, what Lenny Bernstein did for her, what she made of Jane and Paul Bowles, how Frida Kahlo probably liked her because she had a pet monkey.

The anecdotes of the famous are great and, when you read it, you’ll have your own favorites, but I keep thinking about a simpler and perhaps even more amzing story: her first husband had a small airplane (it’s nice to be rich) and taught her to fly. She writes that she has a terrible sense of direction, but flying in Acapulco was easy: she would just take off and fly along the coast until she found a beach that she liked the look of and land there for a day of swimming and bathing.

That world is gone, and perhaps that’s to the good. But I suspect the spirit of the young woman who seized that chance to explore is what made her such a trusted confidante of so many of the great artists of the past century.

A delight.

Not really a review of Spinster

Among English professors these days, there is a debate about world literature. What is the best way to teach literature from countries and cultures other than our own? How can we introduce students to different cultures without imposing our own values on them? This is a complex question, but I think it’s safe to say that Kate Bolick’s book offers a kind of limit case on moving too far in the direction of writing what you know.

If there are dangers in spreading your expertise too thin, in pretending to be able to teach a Mongolian short story, a Kenyan poem, a Uruguayan essay, surely the greater danger lies in thinking that red-headed women from New England who move to New York City to become writers is a meaningful category.

Still, with expectations low, I devoured Spinster. My mom did, too. And, judging by the publicity it received, we are not alone. Nor are we alone in finding that the book has left a bit of a sour taste, that its narrowness suggests a profound failure of imagination. The articles in Slate and the LA Review of Books offer a more thorough take-down of the book than I have the patience to compose. I wanted instead to write about the value that the book might continue to have, in spite of its flaws. So, I went flipping back through the pages I marked in the book, to see what there might be that’s worth sharing.

So disappointing to find nothing. 

Desperate Characters

A few years ago, I did a favor for a friend and, in thanks, he sent me a copy of Paula Fox’s 1970 novel Desperate Characters. Seeing him again in June prompted me to read the book. It’s an amazing small novel about a prosperous, cultured, and childless couple in Brooklyn. The husband is fighting with his law partner; the wife feeds a stray cat. They say things that are not as kind as they probably should be. But the stray cat scratches her, the scratch gets infected, she ignores it and goes off to a dinner party anyway. Even though that’s about it, it manages to be a sinister novel, full of rage and smart observations about gentrification, marriage, and aging.

It’s enough to restore one’s faith in novels about writers living in Brooklyn.

The pleasure of it comes from the precision of the writing. Let me give you a flavor, from some of the passages that struck me.

I liked this one: a wife’s reaction to her husband’s refusal to throw away some very worn underwear: “He sounded rather plaintive. She felt kinder toward him. There was something funny about people’s private little preferences and indulgences, something secretive and childlike and silly. She laughed at him and his soft old underwear.”

Or this description of a party-goer’s pretentious stoner son: “At the very hint of an idea from me, he smiles at me gently as though I were eternally damned.” 

Thanks, Drew!

The Road from Coorain & the Good-natured All-rounder

There was a time, in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, before Mel Gibson went crazy, when Mel Gibson was wonderful, when Australia was very much at the center of the popular imagination. Gallipoli, Mad Max, Picnic at Hanging Rock fired our (or my) imaginations.

My copy of The Road from Coorain comes from that time, and its cover boasts “In the tradition of My Brilliant Career…” but I never read it until now. I might not have read it at all, but my father picked it up and sent me a quotation from it, which reminded me that it had been on my bookshelf all along.

I’m thinking a lot—more, even than usual—about women’s lives, women’s educations, and how ordinary women grow into extraordinary ones, the kind of women who embolden themselves to change the world. Jill Ker Conway, a historian and former president of Smith College is such a woman.

Jill Ker Conway’s memoir of growing up on a sheep farm in rural Australia, her efforts to get out, and her gradual realization that education could become a way for her to leave home, leave her grieving widowed mother behind without forcing a rupture of her bond or her daughterly duty. That interests me so profoundly. The mother’s demand almost derailed Vera Brittain: she did return home from nursing near the trenches when her mother had a breakdown during the War. The mother’s demand threatens to derail Conway, too. And I’m interested in these women, conventional but ambitious woman, who worry over hurting feelings and try to figure out how to achieve without causing a rupture:

“Some of the inner tension went out of me because I saw a solution to the dilemma I could discuss with no one. If I were to become a success academically and chose a career which would take me away from Sydney, it would finesse the whole question of leaving home” (168)

Divas and revolutionaries are amazing, but what fuels my imagination more, these days, are meditations like this one, on the problem of women’s leadership:

“We were an elite. Ergo we were born to be leaders. However, the precise nature of the leadership was by no means clear. For some of our mentors, excelling meant a fashionable marriage and leadership in philanthropy. For others, it meant intellectual achievement and the aspiration to a university education. Since the great majority of the parents supporting the school favored the first definition, the question of the social values which should inform leadership was carefully glossed over. Eminence in the school’s hierarchy could come form being a lively and cheerful volunteer, a leader in athletics, or from intellectual achievement. The head girl was always carefully chosen to offend no particular camp aligned behind competing definitions. She was always a good-natured all-rounder.” (102)

The good-natured all-rounder. What a fantastic phrase. It calls to mind all those amazing athletic, pretty, kind, smart girls of advertising: Gibson girls, Ivory girls, Breck girls. What pressure we put on ourselves to be that impossible girl.

Then, this observation about an early, wonderful boyfriend interested me: “In his company I enjoyed the experience an intellectual woman needs most if she has lived in a world set on undermining female intelligence: I was loved for what I was rather than the lesser mind I pretended to be” (179). This observation, about what women want, reminded me of a less wholesome version of the same thing, from Katie Roiphe’s Uncommon Arrangements, on John Middleton Murry: "He also managed to be both coldly self-involved and extremely needy, which proved to be an irresistible combination to women with strong personalities who did not want to be entirely in control” (93).

And finally, I leave you with this Didion-esque observation about the misery of women living in bohemia:

“The women, having rejected bourgeois fashion, often seemed rather drab. They talked intensely about ideas, but their eyes were watchful because it required close attention to sort out the shifting amatory relationships of the group. When I rejected the inevitable sexual advances, I was looked at with pained tolerance, told to overcome my father fixation, and urged to become less bourgeois. It was a bore to have to spend my time with this group rebuffing people’s sexual propositions when what I really wanted to do was to explore new ideas and to clarify my thoughts by explaining them to others” (221)

I love how, unlike Didion, who experiences the communes of the sixties with misery, Conway just feels impatient and irritated.

It’s not too late. This memoir, beloved in the late-1980’s, is still terrific.

Tove Jansson, The Summer Book

Tove Jannson, age nine, 1923

Tove Jannson, age nine, 1923

We are up on the St. Lawrence River this month, as we usually are in July. I brought The Summer Book with me again, an my copy here joins the one I left behind last year. Embarrassed by the duplication, I read it.

While I had a lot to say about my mixed feelings about Offill, I’m not sure how to explain the small delights of this wonderful book—or maybe it’s just that I don’t have the patience on this gorgeous July day to try. This novel in stories from 1972 by Tove Jansson, author of the Moomin books, is a little wonder and a great, unsentimental, gorgeous summer read. The New York Review of Books reprint includes her illustrations.

It tells the story of young Sophia, based, apparently, on Jansson’s niece of the same name, who spends her summer on an island off the Finnish coast with her elderly grandmother and her Papa. Papa is a minor character—mostly, he has his back to his mother and daughter, sitting hunched over the table, working. Sophia’s mother is dead and, as Kathryn Davis notes in her lovely introduction to this volume, that absence is about all the plot of the book.

Episodes cover the small events of an island summer: a storm, the arrival of a cat, a nouveau riche neighbor, a night in a tent, Papa’s sudden desire for a garden. Both grandmother and Sophia are moody. They irritate each other, cheat at cards, I particularly liked the one in which Grandmother constructs Venice of balsa wood. She sets it next to the water but a storm overnight destroys her models. Rather than upset the already fragile and tantrum-y child, she builds another model and then, to make it look as though it survived the storm, she tosses tea and the contents of her ashtray on the new model.

A deeply charming book. Highly recommended.

Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation

When I read a book, I have gotten into the habit of folding down the bottom corners of pages that have things I might want to remember. Folding the top corner is for when I don’t have a bookmark, which is often. The bottom corner is a compromise with myself: I want to cultivate the skating speed of reading without a pen without giving up the ability to keep track of the important bits for later. There was no real good reason to take notes on Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, except that the praise has been so extravagant and I’m ambivalent about it. Is it good? I’m not sure: I think it’s gimmicky.

I bought it in Seattle at Elliott Bay on the strength of a shelf tag.

It certainly did amuse me, and, in moments move me. I was disappointed, though, that that title notion—of the loss of a sense of wonder and speculation that comes when a couple marries and has children—is so underdeveloped. The poetry of a Dept. of Speculation is beautiful, and the idea that that was the return address for early letters between husband and wife is really lovely. Like Woolf’s devastating story about the death of a marriage, “Lappin and Lapinova,” Offill approaches the idea of how fantasy, joy, and play can leach out of a marriage over time. But then, maddenly, she retreats from it.

The plot is thin: a woman who never imagined marrying marries a nice man. They have a child. Both creative types, they live in Brooklyn (snore) and watch as their careers fail to take off. The birth of their only child further derails the mother, who is frustrated by and enamored of the way the baby consumes her. (Snore!) She gets depressed. He cheats on her. They fight their way back to each other.

The structure is either mildly experimental or a gimmick, depending on your attitude: the story develops by  paragraphs, each separated by a blank line, some more related to the story than others. Some are jokes. Some are about work. In others, developments in the unnamed husband and wife’s life (the baby’s colic, the husband’s affair), emerge as if they’ve happened in the blank spaces. Not a new technique but one that does make the reading go fast.

Occasionally, the interruption of meta-commentary about how this story would or would not pass muster in the fiction workshops the mother herself teaches are funny, as “WHERE ARE WE IN TIME AND SPACE? / WHERE ARE WE IN TIME AND SPACE?” as a comment that could go on almost any early draft of a student story. Occasionally they just reminded me that I might rather read a more patiently developed tale.

But a few things struck me as interesting, worth saving. For example, the moment when a very young man attends a dinner party of thirty-somethings and seems to judge them: “’You are not allowed to compare your imagined accomplishments to our actual ones,’ someone says after the boy who is pure of heart leaves.” Or the description of going to the grocery store, as a sleep-deprived new mother: “Later my husband will say, did you get toilet paper, did you get ketchup, did you get garlic, and I will say, no, no, I forgot, sorry, here is some butterscotch pudding and some toothpicks and some whiskey sour mix.”

But when I told the second to my mother, trying to explain why this novel might have some value, she just said, “That’s why I always make a list.”

Indeed. (You should hear her on Ferrante.)

I like the edge of disturbance in this one: “Here is what happens in middle age: Some friends and acquaintances who were merely eccentric for years become unmistakably mad.”

And I liked this “’You look great,’ her ex says. ‘Amazing actually.’ Everyone has been saying that to her lately. That she looks radiant, glowing. She refuses to mention the yoga. It isn’t that. It’s that the scrim has fallen away. All right, all right, maybe it’s the yoga. It’s true that it’s hard to work the scrim thing in conversationally.”

As a whole, the piece had the feel of autobiography. I got a strong sense of Offill’s intelligence and of the main character’s depression, but I don’t think this his much more than an amuse-bouche of a book.

Claudia Rankine, Citizen

I’m delighted for Claudia Rankine, whose Citizen, a book of prose poems on Trayvon Martin and racial injustice in America, is getting lots and lots of praise. I read the book—devoured it, really. It’s an amazing performance, full of contemporary art (including some work by Glenn Ligon, whose text-based paintings have long been a favorite of mine), rage, tenderness. Some of the language is so easy to understand that it hardly feels constructed at all; other pages are dense, thick, hard to read. Sometimes what’s hard is the confrontation with my own racial fears, my own biases; sometimes, she makes the text hard just by leaving you with a lot of blank space on the page. I expected it to be a great book, but I didn’t expect it to be so engaging. I’m amazed at the power with which she manages to speak hard truths about race, racism, and violence in ways that keep you reading even through the pain. We are talking James Baldwin levels of power, here.

Of all the pages in the book, the one that upset me the most, the one that sticks with me, the one that makes me wince is the one about going to a new therapist: “You have only ever spoken on the phone,” she writes. “Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients…..When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?”

With that, the trauma therapist doles out her trauma to the patient.

How do you go on from there?

The therapist apologizes, there is a break, and Rankine writes “I am so sorry, so, so sorry.”

Who is apologizing? To whom? We know the therapist was wrong—very, very wrong, and we know she apologizes, but this free standing sentence is more than that: it’s a kind of prayer for the mess we are in, an acknowledgement of how much more we will have to do before we can get out. It’s one of many apologies in the book and it’s both enough and not nearly enough. It’s beautiful.

A Woman in Berlin

You might think, given that I’m on research leave this term and the edition of Mrs. Dalloway is done, that I’d be free to read absolutely anything. And that’s true. I have given myself complete free rein to read whatever strikes my fancy.

I surprised myself by choosing the dark, disturbing, and beautifully written A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City. This memoir, published anonymously, was written by a German woman, about 30, who lived through the Russian invasion of Berlin in 1945. One of my graduate students wrote about it, but I hadn’t had time to read it until now. She had been a journalist before the War. Her account of what she endured—rape, rape, and more rape—is harrowing, but also precise. She asks each woman she encounters “how many times were you raped?”, trying to survive in part, by continuing to do her work. She has beautiful things to say about the frustration and anxiety of living without work and continually returns to the notion that she cannot live like a plant, does not want to be a plant. As her food stores dwindle and she’s picking nettles to boil for food, she persists in her drive to be more than just a plant or, as she sometimes calls herself, a walking machine.

It is strange to read about the War from the perspective of a German woman. Strange but important: I could feel assumptions and stereotypes weakening a little as I read.

Of all the many passages that moved me in this beautiful and careful account of wartime life, the one that truly sticks in my memory is her account of the slow emergence of American flags flying from the balconies of Berlin. Every home had a Nazi flag and, she writes, unpicking the swastikas and appliquéing on a hammer and sickle to make a Russian flag was quick work. But, as the plan for Berlin to become a city of three districts emerged, citizens were encouraged to hang flags representing all the Allies. Sheets were easily available for the white bits. Scarce as blue was, it could be found. Of course, the French tricolor is not difficult. Even the Union Jack could be stitched together, with help from consulting an encyclopedia, but all those stars: “the woman with eczema asked me on the stairwell how many stars the American flag ought to have. I didn’t know for sure whether it was forty-eight or forty-nine.” Finally, she is rueful about the competence of the German housewife, even in defeat: “This could only happen in our country. An order came—I have no idea from where—to hang out the flags of the four victorious powers. And lo and behold, your average German housewife manages to conjure flags out of next to nothing.”

You can read more about the text’s complicated path to publication in this review from the Times. It was made into a film, too.

In Praise of Unbored

A few years ago, it was hard to go into the children’s section of a bookstore without seeing huge dumps of The Dangerous Book for Boys and its belated companion, -- -- for Girls. With its appealing Victorian-ish cover and its incitement to old-fashioned fun, I could see why it kept selling and selling, but I was so disgusted and bored by the gendering of fun that I couldn’t bear to do much more than flip through it. It was too stupid to be worth my time.

Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered Unbored at Posman Books. I snapped up a copy for my nephew, and another for my daughter. Co-written by Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen, Unbored is a 21st century version of How to do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself or the Brown Paper School Books (such as The I Hate Mathematics Book or I am Not a Short Adult) (all wonderful books that my dad & I were raised on, that we own now & all worth hunting down): a book full of information and experiments that kids, from eight to thirteen or so, can do on their own.

Unbored has sections on you, society, adventure, and music. The website is full of tempting naughtiness. Want to make a seed grenade? A really gross fake wound? Unbored’s got you covered.

And I should know. It’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and once again I’m breaking my vow to spend it with my kids in service. Bound to my deadline for Mrs. Dalloway, my daughters, 7 & 11, have been pretty free-range this weekend.

What did they do? They went through Unbored and found all the activities that, together, would help them make a circus: a magic trick (supplemented by several more from the web), a cool, acrobatic yoga partner pose, a banner. They will tell you it was a boring weekend, but I saw things a little differently: two little girls, consulting a book, getting more supplies (“Mom, do we have tinsel? What about a coin?”), giggling, and going back down to the basement to play some more.

Childhood at its very best. And allowing me to do the grown-up things I need to do to finish my work, and make my deadline.

This is a great book and I feel like we need to shout that from the rooftops: when someone gets something right about helping kids explore the world, learn and have fun, without putting them into boxes based on identity, let’s celebrate.

It wasn’t reviewed in the Times (though it’s been widely reviewed elsewhere), but this feature from the Home section gives you a sense of its vibe.

Dull

“Mean” and “serious” criticism were discussed at last night’s star-studded and utterly, appallingly disappointing panel on women in arts criticism, Sharp, at Housing Works last night (May 8, 2013). Are women critics more reluctant to be mean? Are women getting a chance to write serious criticism?

At one point, as the panelists, accomplished women all, were congratulating each other, someone noted in passing how it was once the way of young critics to make their mark with an initial excoriating salvo: a “mean” review to make your name, and then, a career.

Ladies, allow me.

And yet, mean is really beside the point. In fact, throughout the evening, I found myself thinking of Henry James, a sharp writer, who also said “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” I value kindness as highly as James. However, it is being neither mean nor unkind to call out an event for failing to deliver on its promise.

Kate Bolick got the evening off to a particularly inane start by asking, rhetorically if her gravitating to the midcentury women critics (Hardwick, McCarthy) was indicative of her unconscious feminism--or was it sexism? Because, her hypothesis went on, they didn’t have to deal with feminism.

At that, I should have thrown my beer can on the stage and left. Those midcentury New York women are sharp as tacks because they had to figure out how to navigate the peculiarities of a Patriarchal Landscape for Literary Journalism (let’s call it the PLLJ) in the 1950’s which differs in texture from the PLLJ that Virginia Woolf faced in London in the 1920’s and 1930’s or what we face from the PLLJ in the early 21st century.

That texture was what was consistently missing over the course of the evening. Kael, Hardwick, and McCarthy were invoked. Sontag was mentioned--and at the mention of her name, I longed to summon her ghost to march up on the stage and sweep everyone off it with her grand white forelock. Vague things were said in praise of their sentences, their beautiful sentences. But not one beautiful sentence was quoted--and, in fact, on several occasions specific essays were cited for their great language and then paraphrased. People: quote the words, cut to the clip, it’s not good enough to hum a few bars and call it Beethoven, to say, “Then, Hamlet has this amazing speech where he’s thinking about whether or not to commit suicide, and he really, well, you know, it makes you think.”

As for serious, again, the wasted promise of all that talent on stage and a genuine disagreement, was infuriating. Laura Miller spoke against serious criticism, by which she seemed to mean pretentious, snobby, only-highbrows-need-apply stuff; Miriam Markowitz, by contrast, spoke for the serious, really deftly explaining how The Nation wants its reviews to eschew the consumer model and be about ideas, and how she is heartened to find women pitching her idea-driven reviews more an more. But why was it only at the end that they began speaking about a lively intellectual culture? It would have been nice to hear that word a little earlier. A long digression on how frustrating the marketing of books has become is hardly interesting to a roomful of people who know too well that tale.

The event was described in ways that gave me such hope:

Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael… In spite of abysmal byline counts at many publications, the English speaking world has a rich tradition of women critics of books, music, film, and the culture at large. Join some of today’s celebrated women critics for a spirited discussion of the women they’ve been inspired by, the challenges of being a woman of sharp mind and pen, and the question of whether women have a distinct purpose as critics at all.

I had hoped to hear more about these women, about the particular struggles they faced. Gossip. Anecdotes. Bracing tales to help me gird my loins as I try to pitch more mainstream publications. It would have been great if the organizer had assigned each of the really talented, smart women on stage a precursor, and asked the living critic to read a favorite quote from the precursor and talk about what Sontag or Kael or Didion or Woolf meant to them, why they could or could not be a model for writers today. Then, we would have had a treat, have learned something.

I had hoped to hear about the living critics’ experiences. Ruth Franklin joked that she spent time asking “are you my mentor?” but that thread was dropped. Parul Sehgal said, more than rivalry, she enjoyed stories of collaboration, but had none to hand, and then we had a tired rehearsal of the Arendt-McCarthy friendship. Franklin and Sehgal seemed every bit as smart as I expected but, like others, both women was hamstrung by the loose format, the general, dispiriting inanity.

I had hoped to hear more about reviews written and the reactions they elicited, about judgments withheld, about editors meddling, about if and how being a woman might have affected any of these hesitations or volleys.

I had hoped to hear more direct accounts of the VIDA count and how it affects these writers’ lives--in their pitching, their editing, their conversations with other writers at the office. Franklin said she’s worked with editors who care and editors who don’t. I can believe that, but, again, it wasn’t worth spending my one night out a week to hear it.

As I was getting ready to go to the ironically titled “Sharp,” I remembered Virginia Woolf’s essay “Why?” It’s a cri de coeur, a lamentation on the difficulty of asking any serious question in public and on the waste of time, consequently, of most lectures: “Why, since life holds so many hours, waste one of them on being lectured?” “Why encourage your elders to turn themselves into prigs and prophets, when they are ordinary men and women? Why force them to stand on a platform for forty minutes while you reflect upon the colour of their hair and the longevity of flies?”

Why indeed. Oh, Woolf, how you are missed.

Two Picture Books

Although the overwhelming percentage of books that I have read to completion in the past decade are children’s books, I don’t blog much about them, nor do I expect to. However, two picture books that have come into our library this year are exciting enough that I wanted to tell you about them. Both hit that sweet spot of satisfying my desire to expose my children to interesting and beautiful stories while utterly delighting the children.

Betty Jean Lifton’s Taka-chan and I with photographs by Eiko Hosoe was originally published in 1967 and reprinted last spring in the NYRB Children’s Collection. It’s the story of a Weimaraner, Runcible, who digs a hole from Cape Cod all the way to Japan. When he gets there, he meets a little girl in grave danger. To save her fishing village from the Black Dragon, Taka-chan and Runcible must go on an adventure.

This book, with its affecting pictures of a huge, mellow dog and a sweet little girl slightly smaller than he, with blunt-chopped hair and innocent little dresses, is as worthy of attention as the equally affecting (but more perverse) The Lonely Doll. The back cover compares it to The Red Balloon which is also apt. Taka-chan and I, told from the dog’s point of view, is one of those gorgeous fables of a post-WWII world in which children roamed lonely, their pre-occupied adults busy elsewhere.

Lifton lived in Japan—with her dog, who plays himself in these gorgeous photographs—and her telling of the story of the fishing village under the thrall of the Black Dragon comes from her own study of Japanese myth, she says. It certainly has the ring of myth. The writing is clear and strong and utterly compelling. Amazing, too, how a photograph of a piece of molding in the shape of a carved wooden dragon can evoke just the right amount of dread.

 Utterly different but equally enchanting is Jonah Winter’s Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude which I found in the gift shop of The Steins Collect show at the Met. Calef Brown’s illustrations owe a lot (too much?) to Maira Kalman but it’s the silly Stein-inflected text that captures what’s awesome and fun and funny about Gertrude Stein. I particularly love how it handles her lesbianism—and my girls loved it, too. I won’t try to replicate the type, which bounces all across the page, mixing in with the images of Stein and roses, but is says:

            Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude.

            And Alice is Alice.

            And Gertrude and Alice are Gertrude and Alice.

            Well it’s like this. You walk up the stairs, and there they are.

Any questions? I thought not. They go together and that is that. Winter’s text puts them in chairs and one by one the people mount the stairs to come have tea--it's very Ruth Krauss, Maurice Sendak for a while. We meet a crowd, then we meet Picasso, “He just invented Modern art which is not the same thing as being angry.”

Later we learn that “while Alice sleeps, Gertrude is writing,” which is important, since just as Winter takes it for granted that Gertrude’s partner is Alice and that Gertrude and Alice are legendary hosts, he also shows us that Gertrude, too, is an artist and a genius. It’s silly and funny but it makes its point. When my girls (six and just about ten) think about books to share with their classmates, both of them think about this one. That makes me happy.