Tuesday, October 30, 2007

channeling Va Woolf today

Does it get any better than Mrs. Dalloway? Here is Clarissa talking about her desire to entertain:

"But to go deeper, beneath what people said (and these judgements, how superficial, how fragmentary they are!) in her own mind now, what did it mean to her, this thing she called life? Oh, it was very queer. Here was So-and-so in South Kensington; some one up in Bayswater; and somebody else, say, in Mayfair. And she felt quite continuously a sense of their existence; and she felt what a waste; and she felt what a pity; and she felt only if they could be brought together; so she did it. And it was an offering; to combine; to create; but to whom?

An offering for the sake of offering, perhaps. Anyhow, it was her gift. Nothing else had she of the slightest importance; could not think, write, even play the piano. She muddled Armenians and Turks; loved success; hated discomfort; must be liked; talked oceans of nonsense: and to this day, ask her what the Equator was, and she did not know.

All the same, that one day should follow another; Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; that one should wake up in the morning; see the sky; walk in the park; meet Hugh Whitbread; then suddenly in came Peter; then these roses; it was enough. After that, how unbelievable death was! -- that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all...(119)

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Feeling My Age

I heard bands on consecutive nights this weekend, and I woke up today feeling like I had mono. I took DayQuil to ward off the cold or flu that seemed to be on the horizon, but now it occurs to me that I'm probably just old. My eardrums hurt, my feet ache, and my head is stuffy. After reading the review of this new novel Matrimony, which follows the lives of four college students into adulthood, it seems that I am simply feeling middle-aged. This was particularly the case at Friday's Widespread Panic concert at the Ryman, which I attended merely for the purposes of cultural anthropology. Who was I ten years ago, and why was everyone I knew then obsessed with this band? All their songs still sound exactly the same and still go on for way too long. Coincidentally, their fans are all now coasting into middle age, as well. Looking around, all I could see were these thirty-somethings reliving their early twenties with as much and perhaps more gusto than they did when they were young. I definitely felt nostalgic for a moment or two, but Widespread was never really my band. That little nostalgic twinge, however, is, I think, very much akin to the zinger with which Jennifer Egan ends her positive review of Matrimony. Here are the two opening paragraphs and her final word on the book:

"The early pages of “Matrimony,” Joshua Henkin’s second novel, call to mind an academic trick employed by Carter Heinz, one of the main characters: “He had started to write what he called beyond-the-scope-of-this-paper papers, in which he would begin by listing all of the things he wasn’t going to write about.” “Matrimony” appears, by turns, to be a campus novel (it begins at Graymont College, a fictional liberal arts school in Massachusetts); a buddy novel (the middle-class Carter forms a friendship with Julian Wainwright, a wealthy New York heir); a writing workshop novel (Carter and Julian meet in one); a meditation on literary influence (the workshop teacher is a cantankerous institution reminiscent of Gordon Lish); and a novel about people writing novels (Carter and Julian both want to, of course).Mercifully, “Matrimony” is all of these — which is to say it’s none of them, really. Its beguiling quality derives largely from the speed with which it accelerates past these shopworn possibilities into something unexpected...(skip to last paragraph)...

But the emotional core of “Matrimony” lies with Mia, and it gains force as Henkin trips through the years. When Julian and Mia move, reunited, to New York, they must confront that greatest of all spoilers: mortality. And by the time they attend their 15th reunion at Graymont, any reader over 35 is likely to feel an almost personal nostalgia for these characters as we knew them first: brash, hopeful, merely playing at adulthood. If they’d only known."

Click here for the full review: Matrimony

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The poetry of nonviolent protest

Today I was actually in the presence of a living legend. I had the pleasure of hearing Civil Rights activist James Lawson speak about nonviolent protest and his role in desegregating the lunch counters in Nashville during the 1960s. He also protested the Korean War and spent three years in jail as a C.O. A colleague of mind reminded me of that great Robert Lowell poem, "Memories of West Street and Lepke, " which is about Lowell's own time as a protester. At that moment I missed Lowell as though he were a good friend I hadn't seen in ages. Had to dig up this poem and post it. It's wonderful to hear recordings of him reading it aloud if you have the time to browse for one.

Memories of West Street and Lepke
by Robert Lowell

Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming
in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning,
I hog a whole house on Boston's
"hardly passionate Marlborough Street,"
where even the man
scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,
has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,
and is "a young Republican."
I have a nine months' daughter,
young enough to be my granddaughter.
Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants' wear.

These are the tranquilized Fifties,
and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime?
I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,
and made my manic statement,
telling off the state and president, and then
sat waiting sentence in the bull pen
beside a negro boy with curlicues
of marijuana in his hair.

Given a year,
I walked on the roof of the West Street Jail, a short
enclosure like my school soccer court,
and saw the Hudson River once a day
through sooty clothesline entanglements
and bleaching khaki tenements.
Strolling, I yammered metaphysics with Abramowitz,
a jaundice-yellow ("it's really tan")
and fly-weight pacifist,
so vegetarian,
he wore rope shoes and preferred fallen fruit.
He tried to convert Bioff and Brown,
the Hollywood pimps, to his diet.
Hairy, muscular, suburban,
wearing chocolate double-breasted suits,
they blew their tops and beat him black and blue.

I was so out of things, I'd never heard
of the Jehovah's Witnesses.
"Are you a C.O.?" I asked a fellow jailbird.
"No," he answered, "I'm a J.W."
He taught me the "hospital tuck,"
and pointed out the T-shirted back
of Murder Incorporated's Czar Lepke,
there piling towels on a rack,
or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full
of things forbidden to the common man:
a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American
flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm.
Flabby, bald, lobotomized,
he drifted in a sheepish calm,
where no agonizing reappraisal
jarred his concentration on the electric chair
hanging like an oasis in his air
of lost connections. . . .

Monday, October 22, 2007

Kite Runner update, etc.

I was right. Amir does in fact get beaten to a pulp. But, miraculously, he lives! Laughter is one of the things that saves him. I have not officially finished the book yet. I tossed it across the room the other night out of pure exhaustion, relieved to know that this novel might actually end semi-well. Unfortunately I still cannot find it anywhere. So frustrating.

So last night I picked up another book instead: Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land. My abiding affection and respect for this author's prose may rival my love of Ann Patchett's. I will include a snippet of the good stuff when I get a chance...right now it is back to grading...

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Asheville on my mind

I have a long and rather bizarre relationship with Thomas Wolfe and his novels. I was once on the Thomas Wolfe circuit, if you will. It all started back in grad school, and it ended in Portland, Maine, where I spent a brief 12 hours delivering the last of my Wolfe papers. It was a love-hate relationship from the beginning, and I hung up the trade after this conference. However you feel about the man, you have to love that his shoes are cast in bronze on Woodfin Street in Asheville.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

This and that

I miss my blog. I've been so sidetracked over the last few weeks that I've barely had time to think of it. But here I am grading again on another lovely Sunday afternoon, and I really can't think of better way to procrastinate...

My reading habits have been pretty erratic recently. Maybe sporadic is the better word. I've set The Kite Runner down for a brief hiatus because I'm pretty sure the main character Amir is about to get beaten to a pulp or starved to death. Not for the faint of heart, this book. So instead I turned to Eliza Minot's The Brambles. Lovely writing. I also picked up The Memory Keeper's Daughter. Whoa mama. That is all I can say about the first few pages. I'm kind of in the market for a less disturbing book - any suggestions?

So in the meantime back to Patchett, because I promised my favorite passage. Here are the thoughts of an old priest now living in a nursing home. Fitting for Sunday, I think:

"It would be incorrect in every sense to say that so near the end of his life he had lost his faith, when in fact God seemed more abundant to him in the Regina Cleri home than any place he had been before. God was in the folds of his bathrobe, the ache of his knees. God was in the hallways in the form of pale electrical light. But now that his heart had become so shiftless and unreliable, now that he should be sensing the afterlife like a sweet scent drifting in from the garden, he had started to wonder if there was in fact no afterlife at all. Look at all these true believers who wanted only to live, look at himself, clinging onto his life like a squirrel scrambling up the icy pitch of a roof. In suggesting that there may be nothing ahead of them, he in no way meant to diminish the future; instead, Father Sullivan hoped to elevate the present to a state of the divine. It seemed from this moment of repose that God may well have been life itself. God may have been the baseball games, the beautiful cigarette he smoked alone after checking to see that all the bats had been put back behind the closet door. God could have been the masses in which he told people how best to prepare for the glorious life everlasting, the one they couldn't see as opposed to the one they were living at that exact moment in the pews of the church hall, washed over in the stained glass light. How wrongheaded it seemed now to think that the thrill of heartbeat and breath were just a stepping stone to something greater. What could be greater than the armchair, the window, the snow? Life itself had been holy...This was not the workings of disbelief. It was instead a final, joyful realization of all he had been given. It would be possible to overlook just about anything if you were trained to constantly strain forward to see the power and the glory that was waiting up ahead. What a shame it would have been to miss God while waiting for Him" (131-132).

Saturday, October 6, 2007


I finished Run a few days ago, and I've been itching to talk to someone about the novel's ending. There is something compelling about the novel after all. Maybe it is Patchett's beautiful writing, or maybe it was the speedball ending: the kind that suddenly socks you after a series of interminably slow pitches. The thing is, I can't quite figure out to whom I should recommend it. It's really the perfect follow-up to The Secret Life of Bees because of its emphasis on mother figures. Still, I can't really see my students sticking with the story all the way through. I barely made it myself, but in the end I'm really glad that I did.

Here's the premise:
The mayor of Boston and his wife decide to adopt after many painful years of failed pregnancies. The wife, Bernadette, is something of a saint, and she even has a family heirloom to prove it: an old, beautiful wooden statue of the Virgin Mary that looks just like her. The couple does have one son named Sullivan, but they adopt two African-American boys - brothers, in fact - whom they name Tip and Teddy. Bernadette dies four years later, leaving her husband to raise the three sons by himself. His name is Bernard, by the way, which just drives me up the wall (Bernard and Bernadette?). Thankfully, he is referred to as "Doyle," which is his last name. I know there is some symbolism there in the naming, but it's just a little too heavy-handed for me to care much about it.

The Doyle family is high profile, and it never occurs to any of them that Tip and Teddy's birth mother, Tennessee Moser, might actually be keeping tabs on them, even living down the street from them, which is exactly what has been going on for the last 21 years of their lives. Lives intersect one night when Tennessee saves Tip's life and nearly sacrifices her own in the process. The boys not only find out that their birth mother has been alive and well and following them for decades, but that they also have an eleven-year-old sister named Kenya, who knows everything there is to know about them that can be learned at a distance. The rest of the story explores the ways that the Mosers and the Doyles begin to learn about and accept the past and the present. All of this exploring takes place over 24 hours, and in the last 5 or so there are several major revelations and plot twists. Sainthood, miracles, and the Virgin Mary all come back into play at the novel's end as well.

So there you have the very complicated plot in a nutshell. I just listened to Maureen Corrigan's review of Run on Fresh Air's podcast, and it reminded me of my favorite passage in the whole book. Now, Corrigan (whom I also adore) is a softie for Catholic writers, so she gives the most glowing review of Run that I have heard yet. She returns repeatedly to the idea that Patchett's writing is so subtly stunning that she can make the implausible seem plausible in a simple turn of phrase. This is the truth. And here is my favorite passage. An old priest, uncle to the boys, is thinking back on his life. Nope, nevermind, left the novel at school. So annoying. I'll post it in later.

If you've never read any Ann Patchett before then just go straight to the used bookstore this weekend and buy Bel Canto. Best to start with her best first. No way you'll be disappointed with that one.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Uh Oh...famous last words

Someone needs to write in quickly and tell me why I should keep reading Ann Patchett's new novel. The plot seems a little contrived. Oh well. I still adore her.