If you're lucky enough to get money from your writing, what should you do with it? Margaret Wise Brown, author of Goodnight, Moon, has, to me, the best answer ever. In 1935, she sold her first book, When the Wind Blew:

“When the check for her royalty advance came in the mail soon afterward, Margaret cashed it immediately. Horse-drawn flower carts were still a familiar sight in the Village; fresh from the bank, Margaret hailed a cart, told the vendor that she wanted to buy everything he had, and directed him to her front door, where the entire cartload was deposited. She decorated her apartment, then called her friends over for a party”

From Awakened by the Moon, Leonard Marcus, 1992.

The Gods Laughed

Last week was spring break, but it wasn’t much of a vacation. In fact, I spent the second weekend of the break commuting, somewhat frantically, to the ACLA (the American Comparative Literature Association) meeting at NYU. I was frantic because my seminar met at 8:30 AM Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and, those first two days, my husband was out of town at another meeting.

But, I got a ride into the city on Saturday and Sunday and, though I lay awake worrying about logistics, I comforted myself with the thought that I’m not as nuts as Robin Schulte describes herself as being in Overwhelmed, a book I’m reading since I complained of it (being overwhelmed) on facebook. I was even beginning to think that I was doing it. I am scholar-mom, hear me roar!

Then came the seminar. Organized by two of my graduate students—one of whom has moved on to greener pastures—it was a delight. There were twelve papers on neglected women writers and the twelve of us sat there, for two hours every morning, talking about our specific writers and the theory and practice of recovering women. I gave a paper on Gertrude Stein (not forgotten) and Goodnight Moon (also not forgotten), talking about how few people think of Margaret Wise Brown as a writer because she wrote for people who can’t read. Virginia Woolf was hardly mentioned at all. That, in itself was a stunning, magical delight for me.

And, by the end of the conference I felt like I can do this! I can move forward with my writing! My ideas are good! I even let myself think these kind thoughts about myself for a while, let myself feel the possibility and the power.

Then, came Monday. The gods must have heard my burp of confidence, because I had a 2-hour conversation with my general editor at Cambridge about all the things I need to do still before Mrs. Dalloway can move forward. All correct; all good ideas; all smart; all do-able in the next two or three weeks. Not one of them do I want to do; though I will do them all.

That was just the amuse-bouche. On Tuesday, my slow Mac at work became my inaccessible Mac. Instead of checking my email, I was reformatting an external hard drive to make it mac-compatible so I could back up my files so IT could reformat the whole machine. I met with two plagiarists. I got a text from the cleaning lady to say "I"m at your house. Where is the key?" I got a call from my daughter to say that her braces had come loose and there was a wire hanging loose in her mouth. Could I come home and take her to the orthodontist?

I do not, at the moment, feel like I can do it all.

I can’t go on. I’ll go on.



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.

Smashing Patriarchy After the Second Shift

These days, I’m teaching Woolf and working on revisions to the introduction to a special issue of Modern Fiction Studies. I’m reading feminist theory and reading modernist theory that neglects women. My antennae are up.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not still overwhelmed by the space-time problem of being the mom in a two-career household with two young daughters.

In fact, the combination of trying to do feminist work while trying to live as a feminist who doesn’t yell too much makes me long for Erma Bombeck or Nora Ephron to come and give me a good belly laugh. It’s too predictable.

  • At the pharmacy, the pharmacists hesitate over my desire for a recommendation for wart removal creams. If she’s really only six, she should go to the dermatologist, they think. I miss a job talk by a potential new colleague that I’d wanted to see, leave the office early and take her to the dermatologist. She recommends I go to the pharmacy for some over-the-counter wart removal cream.
  • During a stolen hour, re-reading A Room of One’s Own for a book club, I am interrupted in my study by someone requesting that, as long as I’m around for an hour, maybe I can run a load of laundry.
  • In an effort to be healthy and even lose some weight, I make pasta with lentils which is roundly rejected. The next day, the leftovers are gone and I have no lunch on hand.
  • The dog was jumpy but not unusually so, this morning, pacing around, cocking his head. Cool it, Flynn, I’m getting to you, I say, but get out of my office! He walks under my desk, cocks his head, lifts his leg and pees on the floor.

Ah, the second shift.

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.