Sunday, September 30, 2007

Inside out

It is the last day of September, and one of those days that could easily win the prettiest-day-of-the-year contest. Where am I? Sitting at my school desk basking in the few squares of sunlight that come through the hermetically sealed window. I am going to grade projects, I really am, but the plan is to get through just a few more articles in the Sunday Times first. Just came across this article about sidewalk seating in NYC called "Curbside, We'll Never Have Paris" and decided to rant about it for a quick second. The apparent point of this article is that New Yorkers seem to be impervious to the many distractions and noxious fumes that surround them while they are eating al fresco. The author Frank Bruni lists several reasons why New Yorkers try to assume the Parisian habit of sidewalk dining, when, according to Bruni, New York streets are clearly not the "cobbled byways of Paris." He sums up the city's love of sidewalk tables in three misguided theories: 1)New Yorkers are trying to pretend like they are in Europe; 2)they have a survival skill or gene that allows them to overlook the rough edges of something; and 3)they crave anything that comes in limited supply. Puh-leeze. How about the fact that they are just as overworked as the rest of us and crave a little bit of outdoor time and sunlight? Wouldn't that suffice for a reason? If there were a decent sidewalk table in Nashville that was actually open on a Sunday, I would find a way to be there if I could. Right now it's back to grading...

Sunday, September 23, 2007

More Patchett - September's "It" Girl

She is everywhere right now, even in the New York Times Travel section. Here she is writing eloquently as always about what makes Nashville's music scene tick:

"But Nashville is a place where musicians of all kinds come to work and to live. Like New York and Los Angeles, it's an American city of dreams — where you go when you decide to put everything on the line and bet on yourself. For that reason, it's also a city with plenty of pawnshops and cheap bars. Seven nights a week the downtown strip is a weird combination of tourists, T-shirt shops and truly inspired singing. Finding a good music club in Nashville is about as challenging as finding good pizza in Sicily. Throw a rock in any direction, you'll hit one: the Mercy, the Basement, the Station Inn, the Bluebird Cafe."

For the full article, click here: "Nashville's Band of Outsiders."

New Ann Patchett Novel

Sometimes I think the grandest thing about living in Nashville is that Ann Patchett happens to live here too. I've never actually met her, but that doesn't matter one bit. However, she is speaking at Davis-Kidd this Friday, September 28 at 6:00 p.m. about her new novel called Run. It is getting rave reviews already. I missed Elizabeth Gilbert speaking about Eat, Pray, Love - big mistake. Not missing this appearance! See you there.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

What to Read?

Here's a pretty interesting New York Times article by Rachel Donadio on the canon shift:
"Revisiting the Canon Wars." . Actually, let me rephrase that: it gets interesting. The first part is a little dull. Below is the paragraph that caught my eye because it lists the most frequently taught works at the university level:

"On campus today, the emphasis is very much on studying literature through the lens of “identity” — ethnic, gender, class. There has also been a decided shift toward works of the present and the recent past. In 1965, the authors most frequently assigned in English classes were Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, Dryden, Pope and T. S. Eliot, according to a survey by the National Association of Scholars, an organization committed to preserving “the Western intellectual heritage.” In 1998, they were Shakespeare, Chaucer, Jane Austen, Milton, Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison. The most-assigned living authors were Morrison, Alice Walker, Maxine Hong Kingston, Salman Rushdie, Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth. (Roth himself may not be so pleased with the company. His forthcoming “Exit Ghost” includes a character’s rant about a library display: “They had Gertrude Stein in the exhibit but not Ernest Hemingway. They had Edna St. Vincent Millay but not William Carlos Williams or Wallace Stevens or Robert Lowell,” the character says. “Just nonsense. It started in the colleges and now it’s everywhere. Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison, but not Faulkner.”)

I am relieved to see that Dryden and Pope got the ax. I've successfully dodged those guys for decades now (along with the entire 18th century) - and apparently with good reason.

Friday, September 14, 2007

A Thousand Splendid Suns

I just finished the last 12 pages of this novel at my desk after staying up til 1 last night reading (editor's note: I never do this anymore. No time). Read this book. You will probably hurl it against the wall on several occasions and find yourself weeping in the grocery store between chapters, but it is worth the agony. This is not a pretty book but a necessary one if we are to understand what is happening to women in Afghanistan. One of the themes introduced in the first chapter is endurance. It is difficult to fathom all that the female characters must endure while living in a society so steeped in violence. An argument this book makes is that violence is woven into the fabric of Afghanistan's culture; there is simply no escaping it. The country has survived for centuries and centuries this way, and it will continue to do so (hence the title A Thousand Splendid Suns). However, the other lesson in this book is that there is something worse than violence, and that is taking away someone's hope. A body can survive myriad brutalities but a soul cannot survive without hope.

I almost quit reading this book several times. Best to keep that great line from Lear in mind as you read this one: "The worst is not/So long as we can say 'This is the worst.'" Know that there are redemptive moments in this novel, and that there is light at the end of the tunnel. But it is a loooong tunnel.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

For the birders

Birding became an interest of mine in Chapel Hill a few years ago, when my neighbor's two cats and I would wait with equal interest to see if anything landed at the backyard bird feeder my dad had installed for me. Quite a few things did land there, actually, which was a delightful surprise, especially considering how little I did to attract them. I did have a pretty great backyard with some nice woods behind me and a creek down the hill (and also a worrisome power plant, but the birds didn't mind that). It wasn't uncommon to see bluebirds, woodpeckers, yellow-rumped warblers, and even a barred owl. I never created a birding "list" though, one example of why I wouldn't even consider myself an amateur at the sport. I was reminded of this last spring when my friend Fielding let me tag along on a birding outing at Radnor Lake. We hooked up with some serious birders, and Fielding quickly proved himself up to task of identification. I, on the other hand, spent most of the time wondering why I couldn't see a thing, only to realize 3/4s of the way through that I was looking through the WRONG END of the binoculars he had lent me. I learned on that trip that serious birders have to have extraordinary patience, and they were all kind enough to extend some to me as they waited for the show.

Still, I'm hoping birding is somewhere in the genes, as my parents have their own incredible bluebird show in Roanoke. They have been feeding bluebird families for years in their backyard, and these bluebirds swoop down from the trees twice a day when my parents ring a silver bell to signal that the soup is on. To witness this is to understand how magical birding can be.

I thought of all the talented birders I know when I came across this great review for a new book out on birding by Scott Weidensaul called OF A FEATHER: A Brief History of American Birding.

I also was recently reminded of that wonderful book about the red-tail hawks in New York City called Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park. The latter might be better for anyone out there who is still struggling to find the right end of the binoculars.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Thinking about Thoreau today...

I've been rereading The Secret Life of Bees as my students read it for the first time. It is a book that speaks to so many different audiences, something that often seems to be a challenge with contemporary literature. My students are loving their version of it, and I am loving mine, as I just realized for the first time Kidd's nod to the American Romantics. Lily and Rosaleen flee Sylvan, S.C. during the summer of 1964 to escape from Lily's father and a group of racists who have brutalized Rosaleen for her attempt to register to vote. Quickly their escape turns into a journey toward a new way of life. As Lily and Rosaleen camp on the side of a river (halfway between their old life and their new one), Lily thinks of Thoreau and his decision to make his own society in the woods on Walden Pond. Here is the quote I was fumbling for in class today while trying to explain the scene at the river when Lily and Rosaleen figuratively baptize themselves into a new beginning. Lily even pops a red river rock in her mouth, "sucking for whatever marrow was inside it" (56):

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan- like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion."

New appreciation for Sue Monk Kidd, and a renewed appreciation for HDT. A good day overall.

Monday, September 3, 2007

End of Summer

For more years than I can remember, I have marked the end of summer with a trip to VA Beach over Labor Day weekend. If all the planets align correctly, I am only delayed a handful of hours in some airport on my way there and actually get to enjoy a few days of a particular brand of summer magic. This consists of sun, sand, US Open tennis (best seats in the house are right in front of the TV, as my dad always says), catching up with family, and eating until we are about to bust. The planets did indeed align for me on this trip, and after a wonderful long weekend in Virginia, I have returned to Nashville a little down in the dumps. It is hard to leave paradise. It is hard to accept the end of summer, too. And that is why I was so thrilled to find this poem while stuck in the airport on Friday, which captures that end of summer mood perfectly. I also remember feeling this way when I lived in New York. Suddenly I would turn the corner or look up at the sky and fall would have slipped up on me. The light weakens, the air is cooler, the mood has changed.

n.b.: Some people actually read the short stories in the New Yorker. I can't count myself among them. However, I am all over the poetry, which is where I found the one below....

"End of Summer"
by James Richardson

Just an uncommon lull in the traffic
so you hear some guy in an apron, sleeves rolled up,
with his brusque sweep brusque sweep of the sidewalk,
and the slap shut of a too thin rental van,
and I told him no a gust has snatched from a conversation
and brought to you, loud.
It would be so different
if any of these were missing is the feeling
you always have on the first day of autumn,
no, the first day you think of autumn, when somehow

the sun singling out high windows,
a waiter settling a billow of white cloth
with glasses and silver, and the sparrows
shattering to nowhere are the Summer
waving that here is where it turns
and will no longer be walking with you,

traveller, who now leave all of this behind,
carrying only what it has made of you.
Already the crowds seem darker and more hurried
and the slang grows stranger and stranger,
and you do not understand what you love,
yet here, rounding a corner in mild sunset,
is the world again, wide-eyed as a child
holding up a toy even you can fix.
How light your step
down the narrowing avenue to the cross streets,
October, small November, barely legible December.

Link to poem in this week's New Yorker