Just finished reading an interview w/ Elaine Showalter on her new book, A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx in the Chronicle. I’m wondering if my utter bewilderment at this assessment is the result of a generation gap or a discipline gap–I don’t think you’d meet a lot of writers who would say that Stein is overrated and Plath underrated. I think I know more people who would at least think the reverse, and a few who would… well, let’s just be honest, they’d rather put a spoon down their throat than recommend Plath. I wouldn’t be one of those, but I’d also no longer put Plath in my personal Pantheon. Stein, on the other hand, I’ve grown more driven to read as I’ve grown older. Or perhaps just grown more pretentious. Showalter’s declaration that Stein is “just not readable” is one that I frequently made as a 20 year old stuck reading Tender Buttons in my spring semester Modernism course. That changed as my MFA workshops dragged me away from narrative as the only coherent way to write a poem. At the very least, a lot of my shift in admiration has come from wanting to hear from female writers who had decentered the daddy drama in favor of more cerebral projects that resulted in compelling, reflective intersections between being a writer and being a woman. Must think about this. But seriously, Uncle Tom’s Cabin?

Q. You say a literary history has to make judgments. Give us an example of whom you see as overrated, whom underrated?

Overrated: Gertrude Stein. She played an important role in the development of modernism, but she played it for men. And she is just not readable. She became viewed as a “sister”: That doesn’t sanctify her work. We can criticize it.

I look with a critical eye at contemporary poetry, too. There are a great many talented woman poets today, but I don’t think any of them measure up to a Sylvia Plath or Adrienne Rich. I don’t feel any male poets do either.

Underrated: In the 19th century, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her reputation got overwhelmed by the political debates over Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but you need to look at Stowe as a novelist. Dred is a powerful analysis of the possibilities of violence and insurrection.

In the 20th century, Jean Stafford has become known for her venomous attacks on the women’s movement in the 1970s. (I once got a really rabid letter from her denouncing my work.) But accounts of her frustrations, childhood anxieties, bewilderment over finding her own voice are worth reading. We also need to pay more attention to Shirley Jackson. She wore the public face of a best-selling novelist, wife of a distinguished literary critic, happy mom. But the private face of a “bad girl” — morbidly obese, alcoholic, agoraphobic — revealed in a series of her writings is compelling.

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Last weekend, I took a trip to south Florida to help my sister pick out a wedding dress. She helped me pick out mine, and somehow managed to make it be totally fun, and it was really important to me to be there to help her (what is more nerve-wracking than choosing the most expensive piece of clothing most of us middle class type people will ever wear?), and Expedia obliged me by having a very reasonable ticket available. The trip was great, despite the fact that I managed to haul an Iowa cold down to Florida AND bring it back with me. We ate sushi, hung out with Diego and Frida, watched 30 Rock on Netflix instant viewing, and best of all we found a beautiful dress right in her budget.

The trip had another highlight: reading. At the last minute, I decided to leave the work reading (which would have been excellent had I wanted to use my flying time for napping… open access metadata harvesting protocols…. Yawn) and most of the poetry (only Peter Gizzi made the carry-on cut) and take a novel with me.

Lydia Millet’s How the Dead Dream is a book I checked out from the library last September, after I had perused the Soft Skull backlist for potential collection purchases and realized that we already had it. And on top of my dresser is where it had sat until I put it in my bag to go to Florida. I left DSM at 4:55pm CST and had finished it just before landing in Florida at 11:30pm EST. I loved this book, and I loved the feeling of just devouring it.

The protagonist, T., is obsessed with money from a very young age. The kind of bizarre extremity of his devotion to literal, physical money was at first kind of hard for me to get into, but I liked the way his obsessive qualities developed as the story progressed. I appreciated his gradual transformation from an unintentionally ruthless land developer (he sees it as a game he is very good at winning and he is very young, but you aren’t really expected to feel sympathy for him, just accept that he is someone who hasn’t thought very hard about where the money he loves comes from) to someone who values the lives of animals intensely, perhaps above his own, but also without much reflection on why that is. I found this transformation believable in part, I think, because it was rooted in a much more universal kind of change—disillusionment. As he lives through his 20’s, he begins to see the fragility of human accomplishment and the fallible nature of human institutions. Money can build but it can’t restore. Nothing can replace the life of an animal. This novel also had one of the best endings I have read in a really long time. It managed a powerful sense of conclusion without overtly tying up any storylines or answering any questions about what is going to happen to T. I think Millett managed this by following the lunging pulse of her protagonist, even though it takes us somewhere that could not rationally be expected. And, by writing beautifully, and in a way that really enlarged my imagination of what it might feel like to be an animal. T.’s transformation is the conclusion, and we are sure that it is total, but other than that we don’t really know much else. Best of all, it’s the first of a trilogy, so there’s more to look forward to.

Having had such great fun gulping fiction on the way south and having neglected to pack a second novel for the trip north, I made a spur of the moment purchase at my departure gate’s book kiosk, one that offers a 50% refund if you return your book after you’ve read it: Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates, in a paperback edition with a fetching picture of Leo and Kate on the cover. I managed to tuck in all four hundred-some pages of rather large print before I had to board my connecting flight in Dallas (longish layover made more entertaining by the televisions tuned to some random station that featured viewer call-ins on Michael Phelps—I loved that at one point it went from a woman who said she was never going to watch the Olympics again to a woman who said that legalizing marijuana was the only way to save the economy—God bless my country full of nutcases). It’s a tightly written book, with a lot of closely-observed emotional moments that would probably hurt quite a bit to read if you were not feeling very enthusiastic about your marriage. I’m not particularly well-versed in domestic novels of the early 1960’s, but I can imagine that it might have been fairly shocking for some readers then. And it rather fearlessly goes right to the edge of a couple of questions that most fiction shies away from: what do you do when you have no particular ambition but do have a sense that you’ve shortchanged your own life (it seems like most of the time this urge is played as a midlife crisis or the result of some long-harbored but very specific ambition, usually artistic)? How do you honestly reconcile that what you do 8+ hours a day does eventually say something about you, that you can’t pretend you are just gaming the system to earn enough money to have this sophisticated and intellectual personal life—you are that person who works in that office? (Or the person who cleans the house, in this novel’s gender-defined marriage.) What do you do when you turn out not to be exceptional? It doesn’t quite dive into those questions, though; it dips its toe in and then decides to go back to the surface, where we only see our protagonists through the eyes of their erstwhile neighbors. I think this is meant to have a tragic effect, but I guess one measure of how each generation’s expectations of marriage and adult life changes is that I didn’t quite buy it as a tragedy, although I might have if I had lived in its time. But I think the world that Frank and April lived in has evolved, just like, thankfully, marriage has. I’ve seen the suburbs lit up by pain in a hundred crazy ways, in Six Feet Under and The Corrections and countless other takes on what happens to the weirdness of us when it’s compressed by the outlines of a life that doesn’t fit. Tragedy is too antiseptic for the reality that these stories have unlocked.

I can’t wait to read another novel…. what’s next?

The right kind of slow read

December 11, 2008

Or, The stupid reason I have not read Gilead yet, and why I am now reading it, and why I dare you to name me someone who gets more out of word placement than Marilynne Robinson

Given how much I loved Houskeeping (doesn’t everyone?), I’m a little embarrassed to admit that the reason I have so long delayed reading Gilead is because of an offhand comment made by Bret Easton Ellis when I went to hear him read at Books & Books in Miami. Now, everything about this reading made it quite clear that he was a jerk, so I’m not sure why a comment from him would do anything but make me think the opposite of what he said. Anyway, someone asked him what he was reading, and he said Gilead, but said it was a really slow read for a short book. I think this influenced my first take on the book, which I checked out from the library shortly after Housekeeping. My fear of the book being a slow read (I’ve developed some bad reading habits, methinks, if a slow read is something I actively avoid) I think made me hyper-sensitive to my own fear of precious writing, and for some reason I heard the narrator in my head as a breathless old man, totally out of touch with reality, living out his final days in a sun-infused farmhouse where all the linens were white and all of the window frames were filled with irregular glass.

Now I’m reading it for real, and I have to say, that was a stupid thing for me to think. A more grounded narrator would be hard to find, and Robinson’s style as always could not be further from precious. Thank goodness the attractively covered Home that appeared last week on my library’s book cart enticed me to give Gilead another go, seeing as it was only after I had checked it out that I realized that it was kind of a sequel to Gilead. So now I’ve got Gilead, too, and I’m only about 25 pages in, but I’m in love all over again.

Possibly, it helps that I’m a little older this time around, a little further into the process of realizing that if I continue make choices that lead me closer to the opportunities to do more of the things I love for a living, I will almost certainly never make the kind of money that makes for blissful childhoods for my future children and will probably spend a lot of time shut up in a room, at a desk. The poignancy of the father-son conversation that this book is so obvious to me now, the weight of small admissions and apologies immediately resonant. Maybe this is why this particular passage about being a writer (a writer of sermons, but clearly a writer) made me get out my notebook and hand write it in today. The narrator has just made a rough estimate of the number of pages he’s written in his lifetime as a preacher, writing 50 sermons a year for 45 years (and they averaged 30 pages each, so that’s 67,500 pages):

That’s amazing. I wrote almost all of it in the deepest hope and conviction. Sifting my thoughts and choosing my words. Trying to say what was true. And I’ll tell you, frankly, that was wonderful. I’m grateful for all those dark years, even though in retrospect they seem like a long, bitter prayer that was answered finally.

I love the content here—the confession that the work of writing, and the pain and poverty that it cost the narrator and his family (not to the point that that they starved, but to the point that money was usually tight) is “wonderful.” Not just worth it, wonderful. Not rewarding or fulfilling, just wonderful. As I’ve blogged about before, I am also in awe of Robinson’s ability to turn sentences into small stories by means of word placement. She can take a straightforward and heartfelt observation and reveal character and move plot with it, all without making it obscure. My candidate for the word doing the most work in this passage: “finally.” First off, it’s only one spot away from being cliché, and that makes all the difference here, in my opinion. She’s taking a sentence you think you know and making it something much darker. It isn’t like the prayer is answered, and then a new happy life starts in the land of answered prayers. The prayer is answered finally, at the end, with an end, without appeal. The answer is having lived all those years in that hope, not in anything that comes after. And on top of that, putting it at the end of sentence affirms that weight, to me at least saying that she didn’t just swap the order to change up flat word placement, she put it there because she meant it. Finally. That’s how life ends, and that’s what this book is about.

You see? This is going to be a slow read for me—slow because I never want it to end.

Nearest Book Meme

December 3, 2008

“The Indian New Deal gradually lost funds after 1941 as the war effort intensified.”

The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature, eds. Joy Porter and Kenneth M. Roemer, 2005

Rules:
* Get the book nearest to you. Right now.
* Go to page 56.
* Find the 5th sentence.
* Write this sentence – either here or on your blog.
* Copy these instructions as commentary of your sentence.
* Don’t look for your favorite book or your coolest but really the nearest.

I have to say, that’s a pretty flat sentence in the middle of some much cooler sentences, but a meme is a meme… I must meme as the meme says.

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One of my new colleagues recently loaned me her copy of Haruki Murakami’s new book, a memoir, entitled What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I’m a pretty big fan of Murakami (2005’s Kafka on the Shore got me hooked, and I read backwards from there), and I’m a pretty big fan of memoirs, and I’m a relatively big fan of running… but not like Mr. M is. Anyway, I found this to be a thoroughly enjoyable read–Mr. M has the same light, deceptively elegant touch in nonfiction as he has in fiction, and he’s good at seeming humble and just as confused as the rest of us about life’s inconsistencies. In fact, I’m convinced he might actually be humble, but I’d have to see it to believe it–how humble can you be when you’re hailed as the best Japanese writer of your generation, practically a shoo-in for a Nobel prize, and able to split your time between Harvard, Japan, and Hawaii? I’m just not sure that’s possible, but the memoir makes it seem that way, and that’s really all that mattered to me as a reader.

So, Mr. M likes to run. A lot. He started running around the same time he started writing, which, believe it or not, was not until he was 30 and had spent his 20’s going into debt owning and running a bar. Then he decided to write a novel–not to be a writer, to write a novel–and he did, and it won a prize and got published, and then he wrote another one, and then he quit the bar and became a writer. During this time, he also became a runner (after being more or less sedentary and a 60 cigarette a day smoker), and he credits running for much of his success as a writer (although this is anything but a how-to memoir). Since then, he’s typically run one marathon a year, and of late has done one triathalon a year. He doesn’t spend a whole lot of time talking about writing in this memoir, but the parallels with his running are clear. Anyway, there’s a couple of passages I really love.

This is how the book opens:

There’s a wise saying that goes like this: A real gentleman never discusses women he’s broken up with or how much tax he’s paid. Actually this is a total lie. I just made it up. Sorry!

Maybe you will find this obnoxious, but I found it totally impossible not to be charmed by the sheer silliness these lines. On a deeper level, I’m hoping he doesn’t mean that he feels free to make up the rest of his memoir… but I am preferring to read it as, if I’m making something up, I’ll just come out and tell you, but I reserve the right to make stuff up.

Okay, on a more serious note, this passage is the best description I’ve found of what it is like to do anything seriously, to wake up each morning with the aches and pains and anxieties that come with doing something demanding and beautiful. There’s a just a price to it, and you pay it:

I think certain types of processes don’t allow for any variation. If you have to be part of that process, all you can do is transform–or perhaps distort–yourself through that persistent repetition, and make that process a part of your own personality.

Indeed–and at some point, you have to decide that that transformation and distortion is what you want, and you have to stick with that. It’s part of you, and it’s important just for that reason. So for now, whenever I sit down to write or read poetry, or think about doing something as crazy as applying to English PhD programs, I think of these lines:

Running every day is a kind of lifeline for me, so I’m not going to lay off or quit because I’m busy. If I used being busy as an excuse not to run, I’d never run again. I have only a few reasons to keep on running and a truckload of them to quit. All I can do is keep those few reasons nicely polished.

Keep polishing, people.

You know, I was so happy that Emily tagged me, and then, I never contributed. But I have kept thinking about it, so here goes. And the meme is:

1. What is the best classic you were “forced” to read in school (and why)?
2. What was the worst classic you were forced to endure (and why)?
3. Which classic should every student be required to read (and why)?
4. Which classic should be put to rest immediately (and why)?
5. **Bonus** Why do you think certain books become classics?

1. You know, I honestly don’t remember being forced to read a lot of classics… my teachers tended to focus on grammar in class and assign book reports, which meant I got to pick most of my reading material. By the time I was in upper high school, and I had moved out of public school and into a school where you got to pick your English classes on a semester basis, so I kind of got to pick the reading there, too. But the best book I read for a book report was Jane Eyre. That was sixth grade, and it was slow going, but I read it with a dictionary right next to me and basically never struggled with a vocab quiz ever again. It remains one of my favorite books. I remember my surprise at realizing, underneath the diction that was initially very challenging, that it was a story about a girl I could relate to. I was hooked. Obviously there were a lot of cultural/gender issues that I was oblivious too at the time, but I was totally swept away and never scared of fancy words again.

Moby Dick is a very close second here.

2. My worst memory of a classic is probably Henry IV (part… I don’t remember). There’s something about me and Shakespeare histories that just do not mix. I find them very hard to absorb, and consequently I got an abysmal grade on the final for that book. I wouldn’t say it’s bad, though, I was just bad at it.

3. The Iliad. Preferably, no one should be made to read it in high school, but everyone should have to read it once  every year in college. I ended up doing that (as an English major and Greek minor, not surprising), and my relationship to it changed dramatically as I grew older. I think you read the Iliad one way as a very young person and another way as you  grow less young. The first time you read it, it’s all lists of names and gory battle wounds, but as you get older, it changes. Before my junior year, I much preferred the Odyssey. The Iliad was too violent. But then junior year, when I was studying abroad in England, two things happened: my grandmother (who was essentially my second parent, as my father did not live with us when I was a kid) died suddenly, and the Iraq war started. During that semester, I was in a Greek class devoted to reading the 24th (aka last) book of the Iliad. I had no idea when I signed up for the class that it was going to be so timely for me. But literally, as the first bombers were flying over Iraq, I was translating some of the most gut-wrenching words on the futility of war ever composed. And as I battled numbly through the cold days just after losing my grandmother, I was also reading some of the deepest expressions of loss. I don’t know what I would have done without that work to do and without those words. I think once you’ve had a couple of experiences like those, the Iliad isn’t just a book, it’s the book. It’s the most elemental narrative of the human experience I know. And in my dream educational world, it would be unavoidable for anyone who wanted to call herself educated. Bonus points if you can recite the last line: And so he was buried, Hector, breaker of horses.

4. Drawing a blank. But I will take this opportunity to state that I firmly oppose any eventual nomination of Ian McEwan to the status of classic writer.

5. I like Emily’s discussion. Other than what she said, it seems to be a mystery, but I do know that if your book is going to be a classic that’s around a long, long time, it helps if there are numerous copies of it to begin with. Or if people wrap mummies in pages of your writing.

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Letters

July 17, 2008

The days since I started working at this library have felt a little bit like being a kid in a candy store, or a college freshman in the age of Napster–there’s a sudden feeling that everything I want in terms of books is suddenly right here, and it’s summer, and quiet, and not a lot of stuff is checked out.  This is because I want a lot of poetry, fiction, and criticism, and that’s kind of what liberal arts schools specialize in. So naturally I’ve been checking out way more books that I realistically have time to read. But one of them did get read last night, a book I haven’t seen in a good long while which was Richard Hugo‘s Collected Poems, and in that collected one book in particular, 31 Letters and 13 Dreams. I first read the Letters & Dreams in high school, and there’s no poetry like the poetry one reads in high school on the recommendation of a teacher who is very wise and generous and writerly. I love these poems. They are all written to other writers, and they all have the same title format: Letter to Kizer from Seattle, for example. They have a lovely way of combining the physical (place, weather, things) with the emotional (friendship, depression, joy). Here’s a sample, towards the end of this person’s blog post. I especially love the letters, and reading them at that age must have had a big impact, b/c some of the my favorite poems that I’ve written myself are letters. And even if they don’t turn out good, I always enjoy writing a letter poem. They’re just a lot of fun–you get to talk about yourself while talking to another person, which naturally brings place into b/c if you’re writing obviously you’re in separate places so you need to describe where you are. Also, you can say things that are a little bit deeper than you might normally say in a catch up letter, which is normally what I want to say anyway.

Over my peanut butter lunch just now, I got to thinking, hey, I just drove across the country and I need to catch up w/ some peeps, so why don’t I write some letter poems? I’ve been wanting to blog more about the trip, but haven’t thought of good ways to frame/start posts, and I’ve been wanting to reflect more on the trip and how it’s felt different than other big trips I’ve made. I’ve also been wanting to write people some long emails. So watch for some letter poems here. I’m going to start with ones addressed to people who are known readers of this blog. And oh yeah, I’m going to write them “from” some of the places we stopped along the way here, even though I am no longer there. That’s my poetic license, see. I’m going to write them here (or mostly here) in the blog, very little revision, so I’m not promising anyone great poetry. Just fun poetry, I hope. B/c what’s more fun than a letter written to you?? If you read this blog and you are my friend and you know that I don’t know that you read it, drop me an email so that I’ll write to you. And they won’t be in any particular order, just as I think of them. And we’ll see how long this project lasts!