Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Katie Ford, poet

I had the good fortune of hearing Katie Ford read her poems about New Orleans last year when she visited my school. She reads with such poise and presence. I remember skimming through some of her poems before she arrived and not really experiencing their essence (not really possible in the act of skimming, is it?), but then I heard her read and they all came vividly to life. I was trawling around last night looking for a good poem and came across a November one of hers from The New Yorker. Not sure how I missed this. I also found a video of her reading. Haven't figured out how to embed it but I am including the video link below the poem, as it is pretty good quality. I have been feeling poemless for the last few days. Wanting to rest my mind on something but whatever that something is, it has been just out of reach. I'm glad I ran into Ford again.

"November Philosophers" by Katie Ford
published Nov. 9, 2009 in The New Yorker

Nothing is nothing, although
he would call me that, She was nothing.
Those were his words, but his hand was lifting
cigarettes in chains and bridges
of ash-light. He said he didn’t want his body to last.
It wasn’t a year I could argue
against that kind of talk, so I cut the fowl
killed on the farm a mile out—brown and silvery, wild—
and put it over butter lettuce, lettuce then lime.
I heated brandy in the saucepan, poured a strip of molasses
slowly through the cold, slow as I’d seen
a shaman pour pine tincture over the floor
of my beaten house.
She seemed to see my whole life
by ordinance of some god
who wanted me alive again.
Burnt sage, blue smoke. Then sea salt shaken
into the corners of violent sadness.
She wrote my address
across her chest
to let everything listening know
where my life was made.
We waited, either forgetting what we were
or becoming more brightly human in that pine,
in her trance, in the lavender I set on the chipped sills,
not a trance at all but my deliberate hand cutting
from the yard part of what she required.
Now wait longer, she said, and I did as I would
when the molasses warmed over the pot enough
to come into the brandy,
to come into the night
begun by small confessions—
that this was just a rental, and mine just a floor,
that the woman he loved was with another man,
his mother mad, his apartment haunted in the crawl space.
Then I told of the assault at daybreak between
the houses. Heat, asphalt, all of it and my face toward
the brick school where the apostolate studied first-century script
and song. There must have been chanting,
as it was on the hour.
What we said was liturgy meant only for us
and for that night. Not for anyone else
to repeat, live by, believe. Never that.
Our only theories were inside of our hands,
flesh and land, body and prairie.
I reached to smoke down his next-to-last,
which he lit and made ready.
The poultry like a war ration
we ate all the way through.
What we wished, we said.
What we said, we found that night
by these, and no other,

Katie Ford Reading/Marick Press

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Decade We Had

I haven't read anything worth writing about in the last few weeks, and I'm stewing around about this fact. I recently started Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, and it is so miserably depressing that I have put it down for awhile. I know it won the National Book Award, and I'll eventually persevere and finish it. But it is not, at the end of 2009, a book I feel compelled to read. I'm feeling the same way about Up in the Air, which I did see. And what a brilliant downer of a movie it was.

Interestingly, I did find something of Colum McCann's today worth reading and celebrating. The New York Times published a lengthy multi-piece editorial titled "The Decade We Had," in which ten noteworthy and diverse writers (Richard Ford, Anthony Bourdain, Scott Turow...) chronicle the first ten years of this century. Each author specializes in a year and talks about it from his or her perspective. These pieces are each short, and there is no reason not to read all of them. However, my attention span is even shorter. I'm requiring the extraordinary at the moment, and Colum McCann delivers a big dose of it in his overview of 2008, the only year I've found interesting enough to finish. Not surprisingly, McCann talks about the historic nature of 2008 in terms of literature. It is probably egregious to cut and paste the whole piece right here, and I'm doing it anyway. I just reread it again, and it is so extraordinary that I am going to pull out that wretchedly depressing new book of his and give it another try.

"Titles of the Times" by Colum McCann

We are built on the wounds and mercies of the past: everywhere we are is everywhere we have been. I traveled to America long before I came to America. I grew up in Ireland in the ’70s, a teenager reading Kerouac, Ginsberg, Brautigan, Ferlinghetti. I would walk the length of Dun Laoghaire pier — a moving corduroy of sea waves in front of me — with a paperback copy of “Trout Fishing in America” tucked in the waistband of my jeans. Leaving was already written in me.

When I became an American citizen more than two decades later, I took James Joyce along with me. He sat on the metal chair at the swearing-in ceremony, and it was our secret that I’d now become a man of two countries: the only other people I told were my wife and children.

I still, these days, mark time by books. It is my chance at history. So I enter the 1920s not through Wilson, or Harding, or Coolidge, but in Gatsby’s gorgeous pink rag of a suit. I find Herbert Hoover hanging out on the running board of the Joad jalopy. Kennedy and Johnson traipse along feeling the weight of the things they have carried, and Bill Clinton sounds out the saxophone alongside the white noise.

Literature can stop my heart and execute me for a moment, allow me to become someone else. It is another chance at history. It is also my opportunity to align myself with the sort of American that I would like to be.

But for all my pursuit of what it meant to belong, I still hadn’t, by 2008, three years after I took the oath, told anyone but my family about my blue passport. Throughout the Bush years, I carried an awkward brick of language around with me — “Blackwater” and “levee” and “jumpsuit” and “Enron” — and that was not a language I wanted to build a house upon. I stayed silent and I tucked my dual citizenship away.

Then on the evening of Nov. 4, 2008, Barack Obama stepped onto the stage of a country maimed by war, cleaved by greed, riven by a collapsing economy, and I walked outside my New York apartment with my 5-year-old son in my arms, and I felt those old bricks falling away from me, the guilt, the doubt, the American stammer. Up and down the street, people shouted out the windows of their cars. Strangers were hugging one another. It was the briefest of parties — Bernie Madoff was on the way, after all, and Afghanistan loomed — but my boy had fallen asleep on my shoulder, and I felt I was, then, like the old phrase, the son of my son.

Fiction deals elegantly with issues that politics eventually wrestles with, corrupts, destroys, but nothing specific had been written to prepare me for President Obama. I wasn’t able to align him with any fiction, and yet it seemed that so much of literature has worked toward the moment. From Vladimir Nabokov to Aleksandar Hemon to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, American literature has always been prepared to take in the “other.” It has also allowed writers to hold onto their own country, so that they can have their hands in the warmth — or bitter cold — of both places.

The night confirmed for me so much of what I had wanted from the American experience, and so much of what I’d already received from her literature. Two halves of me were welded. It was as if politics had woken me from books, and I felt rooted and at home.

When 2008 is crushed and lying in the smithereens of memory, far from now, when it has taken on new shape, or when it has been undone by other years, when it has been dissected and torn, when it has been transformed into novels, shot through with language, reinventing the president, and indeed us, I will still return to that November evening, a moment that — like good fiction — was the marker of a beginning and an end.

Colum McCann is the author of “Let the Great World Spin.”

Editor's note: 2001 is a good read, too.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Blackberry Farm Cookbook

Yesterday I went to Davis-Kidd and heard my friend Sam Beall speak about his new Blackberry Farm cookbook. The talk was lovely because he is so passionate about what he does. I showed up looking like a bat out of hell, having come straight from a run, but he was completely gracious. I'll admit I was also the first to dig into the fantastic pimento cheese and salumi (check it- it's a word) that he brought, but I made sure to purchase some, too. A lot of people already know this about me: I happen to be a connoisseur of pimento cheese, and Blackberry Farm's is winning my personal contest right now. The cookbook is coffee-table gorgeous and full of simple, inspiring recipes. I use the word simple in the best way: simple because everything equates and connects with Tennessee's seasons. There are no frivolous ingredients. In this way the recipes remind me a bit of Ina Garten's, but Blackberry Farm's seem even more connected to the earth.
Listening to Sam talk about the farm, the food, the inn - it's clearly a profession that becomes a way of life. I've been thinking recently about teaching in the same way. I know there are ups and downs to this kind of life work, but I wouldn't trade it.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Kenji Yoshino

I heard a brilliant law professor named Kenji Yoshino tell his story at a conference in Denver last week. I have never, as far as I know, been in the same room with someone who could unequivocally affirm that he was in the process of changing the world. In response to an audience member's question about the need for federal protection against discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation or gender identity, Yoshino said in so many words, "We're working on it. ENDA will pass - give me three years." It was thrilling to be in that room at that moment.

He recently published a book called Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights and spoke to us about the concept of covering. I am still exhausted from traveling, grading, and wrapping up the semester, so I am going to cut some corners and post here what others think of this book. I plan to read it over the break as soon as I can get my hands on it...

“This brilliantly argued and engaging book does two things at once, and it does them both astonishingly well. First, it’s a finely grained memoir of young man’s struggles to come to terms with his sexuality, and second, it’s a powerful argument for a whole new way of thinking about civil rights and how our society deals with difference. This book challenges us all to confront our own unacknowledged biases, and it demands that we take seriously the idea that there are many different ways to be human. Kenji Yoshino is the face and the voice of the new civil rights.”
--Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed

“This stunning book introduces three faces of the remarkable Kenji Yoshino: a writer of poetic beauty; a soul of rare reflectivity and decency; and a brilliant lawyer and scholar, passionately committed to uncovering human rights. Like W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, this book fearlessly blends gripping narrative with insightful analysis to further the cause of human emancipation. And like those classics, it should explode into America's consciousness.”
--Harold Hongju Koh Dean, Yale Law School and former Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights

“Who’d expect a book on civil rights and the law to be warmly personal, elegantly written, and threaded with memorable images? [T]he beauty of Yoshino's book lies in the poetry he brings to telling his own story.”
--O Magazine

Sunday, November 22, 2009

How did I get suckered into reading this?

The Time Traveler's Wife, a novel I said I would never, ever read. When it came out in 2003 the plot sounded insane, and it still did last week when two of my students wrote book reviews about it. I should note that the book reviews were actually quite good for such a complicated, insane plot.
So why is it that I am now on page 398 of this whopping 536-page novel? I can't seem to answer this. One of my students did hand me a copy of the book last week insisting that I read it. As I shook my head, I opened up the cover and a Derek Walcott poem stared back at me. Derek Walcott? An auspicious beginning for such a terribly titled book. Here is the poem, which I ran into again in the library later that same day. Funny coincidence.

"Love After Love"

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Friday, November 20, 2009

my good day

Yesterday I was sitting in the library with one of my classes, listening to our wonderful librarian talk about interesting reads for my students. I remember feeling tired, definitely not 100%. For a minute I thought about what I would rather be doing (sleeping, reading on a couch somewhere, sitting outside in the sunshine), and then it hit me: I was actually in the middle of my perfect day. I don't know that I've ever been so acutely aware of being in the moment, or at least certainly not when I'm at work. I usually reserve that kind of presence for vacations. Here was my startling revelation, and not in a nutshell:
All of my classes visited our library yesterday, which is arguably the most beautiful indoor space on campus. My freshmen were working on poetry projects, which meant that I could sit and read poetry too and help them find relevant poems. I ended up with a Billy Collins volume called Sailing Around the Room and Other New Poems, and here is the poem that caused me to erupt into unstoppable giggles for the remainder of class:


Glancing over my shoulder at the past,
I realize the number of students I have taught
is enough to populate a small town.

I can see it nestled in a paper landscape,
chalk dust flurrying down in winter,
nights dark as a blackboard.

The population ages but never graduates.
On hot afternoons they sweat the final in the park
and when it's cold they shiver around stoves
reading disorganized essays out loud.
A bell rings on the hour and everybody zigzags
into the streets with their books.

I forgot all their last names first and their
first names last in alphabetical order.
But the boy who always had his hand up
is an alderman and owns the haberdashery.
The girl who signed her papers in lipstick
leans against the drugstore, smoking,
brushing her hair like a machine.

Their grades are sewn into their clothes
like references to Hawthorne.
The A's stroll along with other A's.
The D's honk whenever they pass another D.

All the creative-writing students recline
on the courthouse lawn and play the lute.
Wherever they go, they form a big circle.

Needless to say, I am the mayor.
I live in the white colonial at Maple and Main.
I rarely leave the house. The car deflates
in the driveway. Vines twirl around the porch swing.

Once in a while a student knocks on the door
with a term paper fifteen years late
or a question about Yeats or double-spacing.
And sometimes one will appear in a windowpane
to watch me lecturing the wallpaper,
quizzing the chandelier, reprimanding the air.

Later in the day, my seniors were working on another kind of poetry altogether: The Great Gatsby. After listening to booktalks in the library we raced back to my room to talk about the strange and glamorous people that populate the first chapters of that novel. My students were exuberant: they adore this novel. They adore this novel even though they are in the middle of November and college applications and are only minutes away from Thanksgiving break.

After wrapping up Gatsby and teaching, I met and worked briefly with a group of teachers about diversity issues at my school. I love this group of teachers and what we're doing. I realized during my epiphany that I was looking forward to this meeting all day.

Then I had my fiddle lesson, and I am officially rocking out on some Christmas tunes these days.

Finally, I found myself at 9 p.m. sitting in the cheapest seat at the symphony listening to the gorgeous layers of Bolero. Sigh.

A perfect day.

I share all this because anyone who knows me well knows that my life is far from perfect right now. But there is something transporting and dazzling about good literature and poetry and music.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Chicago - the finer things

This weekend some friends and I toured Oak Park, which is Frank Lloyd Wright's old stomping ground. We had all read Loving Frank by Nancy Horan back in August and decided to see his work for ourselves.
These are some shots of a nearby park, homes he designed in his neighborhood, and his own home and studio(photos 3-5).
I think our next common read should be set in Bali, although Chicago was surprisingly lovely in November...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Primer for an Anxious Girl

If winter were an axiom,
I would spell it for her -
every daughter should study
the abrupt freeze

lest she be caught abroad
in it. If night were an
equation, we would solve
it by candlelight - feathers

plus an ache in the throat.
She worries these rules
till they are threadbare
and cannot keep her warm.

I explain and explain
insomnia. Wish I could
unlatch the silk lid
of her head, reach precisely

in, rearrange the corridors
of sleep. That way, my love.
Past the purple masses
of snow, round the corner

where gale becomes zephyr.
A waiting cradle rocks
beneath the firmamental lilac.
Disembodied - thus.

~from Heathen by Lesley Wheeler
And yes, everyone should buy this lovely book of poems.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

looking good

Barbara Kingsolver's new novel, Lacuna.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Lamps

Eight o'clock, no later,
You light the lamps,

The big one by the large window,
The small one on your desk.

They are not to see by --
It is still twilight out over the sand,

The scrub oaks and cranberries.
Even the small birds have not settled

For sleep yet, out of the reach
Of prowling foxes. No,

You light the lamps because
You are alone in your small house

And the wicks sputtering gold
Are like two visitors with good stories

They will tell slowly, in soft voices,
While the air outside turns quietly

A grainy and luminous blue.
You wish it would never change --

But of course the darkness keeps
Its appointment. Each evening,

An inscrutable presence, it has the final word
Outside every door.

~Mary Oliver, from Twelve Moons (1979)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Horror Stories

Pages of frost hurtle off the metal roof
as I begin to faint in class again.
This time, it's the rueful laugh in "Out, Out -"
that rims the world with spreading pools of blood.
My hands are cold and the next hour snakes ahead
of me narrowly like a salted path through rimed,
rattling grass-leaves. Too many poems put my lights
out. Too many leave the bones exposed, the gore
leaking, clumps of hair with the scalp attached
discarded in the sawdust. They're worse than life,
than the classics professor who scissored off a finger
a beat before the bell, trimming flowers
her husband sent because he's off to war
again. She is, I presume, getting medical help
right now. She will be, I imagine, fine in the end.
Damaged, but okay. The clouds will blow
off, and the crashing knives of ice will shatter
harmlessly on the ground. My blood pressure
will come back from whatever resort it's been skiing at
along safely cleared roads with the stereo blasting -
no, that's a student's cell phone and I'm still
in class. The rhythms of questions, sentence sounds.
They're waiting for me. We'll be fine in the end.

~Lesley Wheeler, Heathen (2009)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Today's Booksellers: Walmart vs. Amazon?

I probably shouldn't share this depressing article in The New York Times this morning about how Wal-Mart is poised to define the book publishing industry. I'm not a frequenter of Wal-Mart; however, my one visit in the last year was utterly disturbing, largely because of its book section. I could not believe my eyes when I walked the aisles. Brand-new books were already selling in paperback for something like $4.95. I bought an older one for the same price - Julia Child's My Life in France - but I felt a little like I was committing a crime doing it. It wasn't just the cheap price but the cheap cover art. Meryl Streep was sprawled across the cover as if she were actually Julia Child, and not just the actress who played her in a film recently. Perhaps even more disturbing was the fact that Barack Obama's books were turned so that their covers faced the wall. I almost missed them altogether. Someone had come through and methodically turned them so as to erase them from the shelves (I should note here that this Wal-Mart was not in Nashville).

Here is a snippet from the article titled "Price War Over Books Worries Industry," linked above:

Independent booksellers have long struggled to compete with discounts offered by Barnes & Noble, Amazon and Wal-Mart. William Petrocelli, an owner of Book Passage, an independent company that has stores in San Francisco and suburban Corte Madera, Calif., said that for now he was relying on the loyalty of customers who valued staff recommendations and author events as much as prices. But, he said, if the low prices siphoned off too many customers and put independent stores out of business, it would ultimately affect what would get published.

“What this does is accentuate the trend towards best sellers dominating the market,” Mr. Petrocelli said. Without independents, decisions about what books to put on store shelves would reside in the hands of a few corporate executives rather than hundreds of idiosyncratic booksellers, he said.

“You have a choke point where millions of writers are trying to reach millions of readers,” Mr. Petrocelli said, “but if it all has to go through a narrow funnel where there are only four or five buyers deciding what’s going to get published, the business is in trouble.”

By the way, I never read that Wal-Mart paperback that I bought. Couldn't ever bring myself to pick it up. There is something about reading for me that includes the physical aesthetics of a book, and not just the words on the page.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Best line from Bright Star

It sounds more fabulous in the context of the film, but worth posting anyway:

"A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore; it's to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery."

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A Homemade Life

I've read several books recently that I loved and failed to blog about. I had grand plans to write a long essay about faith in Kathryn Stockett's The Help. (What I actually wanted to say about this topic utterly escapes me now.) While in Maine this summer I devoured The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, and I remember furiously pushing this book on everyone I could think of via text message. I was convinced that my book club not only needed to read it, but we also needed to travel up to Massachusetts to ... well, I can't remember. But it seemed urgent and a very good idea at the time. All this to say that this blog is a way to combat my short-term memory when it comes to books, and when I don't record my thoughts right away, they disappear altogether.

So, before I forget or move on to the next thing, I am writing this morning to say that I am really, really enjoying Molly Wizenberg's A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table. Wizenberg is the creator of Orangette, a spirited and whimsical blog about her life as a thirty-something foodie. I found her blog a couple of summers ago through my friend Maura's blog (Paperbluebird), and I went on a tear making these insanely good chocolate chip cookies a la Orangette that are topped with fleur de sel or kosher salt - can't remember which. Anyway, they were divine. I'm pretty sure The New York Times thought so, too, and featured the recipe online. I made batches and batches and ate them for breakfast. And then I forgot all about Orangette for awhile until I happened upon Molly Wizenberg's new book last weekend.

In A Homemade Life, Wizenberg chronicles significant moments, places, and people in her life through stories about food. This project seems to have begun as a way for her to celebrate her father, Burg, who passed away before she began this writing project and who influenced her appreciation for a good homemade recipe.

The chapters are organized chronologically, but each stands fully on its own as a vignette or snapshot. I've been opening the book at random and reading it both backwards and forwards, and this method has worked wonderfully for me. The recipes that close each chapter evolve out of Wizenberg's life experiences, and they express the same sort of whimsy and creativity with which she seems to live her life. Listen to some of these recipe titles and then go buy the book:

Radishes and Butter with Fleur de Sel
Red Cabbage Salad with Lemon and Black Pepper
Custard-Filled Corn Bread
Pistachio Cake with Honeyed Apricots

and, my personal favorite:

Bread and Chocolate

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

first fall day

Today was the first day it felt like fall; the weather was nipping at my heels every time I stepped outside. To me, this signals the advent of hot chocolate season - and I'm not talking about just any old hot chocolate. Because I'm feeling generous and also a little under the weather, I am going to share the best-ever recipe. It zaps a cold, suffices as a meal, and requires a nap after consuming.

It may not seem obvious what this recipe has to do with a blog about reading habits, but I read a lot of cookbooks. Here is a fruit of the habit:

"Super-rich Hot Chocolate with Coconut Cream" from Bon Appetit
(I think)

~makes 8 servings and takes less than 30 mins~
(I usually halve all the ingredients)

one 13.5 ounce can unsweetened coconut milk (light/reduced fat works fine)
1/4 cup sugar
1 3/4 cups heavy cream
1 2/3 cups whole milk
3 cups bittersweet chocolate chips (18 ounces)
marshmallows for serving (optional and I never do this)

In a small saucepan, combine the coconut milk and sugar and heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Keep warm.
In a medium saucepan, combine the cream and whole milk and bring to a simmer. Add the chocolate chips to the milk/cream mixture and remove from heat. Let stand, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate is melted: whisk until smooth. Pour chocolate into 8 mugs and spoon coconut milk on top (or just fill half of each mug; that is what I do). Marshmallow garnish.

Friday, September 25, 2009

"The Serenity in Stones" by Simon J. Ortiz

I am holding this turquoise
in my hands.
My hands hold the sky
wrought in this little stone.
There is a cloud
at the furthest boundary.
The world is somewhere underneath.

I turn the stone, and there is more sky.
This is the serenity possible in stones,
the place of a feeling to which one belongs.
I am happy as I hold this sky
in my hands, in my eyes, and in myself.


Thursday, September 24, 2009


Transparent New Home for Poetry in Lower Manhattan...

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"Statuary" by Katherine Larson

The late cranes throwing
their necks to the wind stay
somewhere between
the place that rain begins
& the place that it ends
they seem to exist just there
above the horizon at least
I only see them that way
tossed up
against the grey October
light not heavy enough
for feet to be useful or
useless enough to make
gravity untie its string. I'm sick
of this stubbornness
but the earthworms
seem to think it all right
they move forward
& let the world pass
through them they eat
& eat at it, content to connect
everything through
the individual links
of their purple bodies to stay
one place would be death.
But somewhere between
the crane & the worm
between the days I pass through
& the days that pass
through me
is the mind. And memory
which outruns the body &
grief which arrests it.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Just Because...

"Mockingbirds" by Mary Oliver

This morning
two mockingbirds
in the green field
were spinning and tossing

the white ribbons
of their songs
into the air.
I had nothing

better to do
than listen.
I mean this

In Greece,
a long time ago,
an old couple
opened their door

to two strangers
who were,
it soon appeared,
not men at all,

but gods.
It is my favorite story--
how the old couple
had almost nothing to give

but their willingness
to be attentive--
but for this alone
the gods loved them

and blessed them--
when they rose
out of their mortal bodies,
like a million particles of water

from a fountain,
the light
swept into all the corners
of the cottage,

and the old couple,
shaken with understanding,
bowed down--
but still they asked for nothing

but the difficult life
which they had already.
And the gods smiled, as they vanished,
clapping their great wings.

Wherever it was
I was supposed to be
this morning--
whatever it was I said

I would be doing--
I was standing
at the edge of the field--
I was hurrying

through my own soul,
opening its dark doors--
I was leaning out;
I was listening.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Bright Star - The film

I think I had heard rumblings that someone was making a movie out of the John Keats-Fanny Brawne romance. Not only is this true, but check out the review by A. O. Scott: "Keats and His Beloved in an Ode to Hot English Chastity." Great title. And here's the sonnet, which speaks so beautifully for itself...

By John Keats
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art---
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors---
No---yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillowed upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever---or else swoon in death.


"Seminar" by Justin Quinn

I carry America into these young heads,

at least some parts that haven’t yet got there—

Hawthorne’s Salem, Ellison’s blacks and reds,

Bishop’s lovely lines of late summer air.

The students take quick notes. They pause or dive

for dictionaries and laptops, or turn to ask

a friend as new words constantly arrive.

The more they do, the more complex the task.

They smoothly move from serious to blasé

and back again. I love the way they sit

and use their bodies to nuance what they say.

I lean forward to catch the drift of it.

When it’s ended, they’ll switch back to Czech,

put on their coats and bags, shift wood and chrome,

and ready themselves for their daily trek

across a continent and ocean home.

Published in the Sept. 14 issue of The New Yorker.

Monday, September 7, 2009


This new work of nonfiction by Dave Eggers is absolutely stunning. I am already thinking of ways to work it into my curriculum. I picked it up on Saturday and could not put it down until I finished it. Eggers retells the true and spellbinding story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, an established painter/contractor in New Orleans who remains behind in his beloved city of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. The owner of multiple pieces of property around town, he initially stays behind to secure his buildings and the worksites of his clients. However, in the days after the storm he finds a new purpose. He begins taking care of left-behind pets and saving people from their waterlogged homes. Traveling by canoe, he rounds the city on water, avoiding the gangs who are looting. One day he disappears at the hands of the American government. The story of what happens to him rattled me to the core. Eggers's opening epigraph from Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a brilliant piece of foreshadowing: " the history of the world it might even be that there was more punishment than crime..."
This is a story about the best and the worst of a post-9/11 America ruled by fear. I think it is required reading for everyone. Spend the $25 on the hardback copy now; all proceeds go to the Zeitoun Foundation.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Reading habits

I love that someone from the New York Times is interviewing subway riders about their reading habits. See here for what New Yorkers are reading underground these days. Great-looking mobile library, if I do say so myself. I find it fascinating that 24 people are reading Anna Karenina on the subway in any given week. What is it with that novel this summer (obviously I've never actually finished it...)? Two different friends of mine were also reading it in June and July. Must be something in the air.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Stern Men

I hadn't planned on blogging about Elizabeth Gilbert's early novel Stern Men, which I read over the summer while in Maine. But this morning the Sunday New York Times is featuring a front-page article on the lobster wars in Matinicus, Maine, and I was reminded about how much I enjoyed the book and Maine itself. The lobster industry up there is FASCINATING. Gilbert's book about two small Maine islands at war for decades over lobster territory is also fascinating, although I'm not sure I could have gotten through it without experiencing this whole Maine lobster phenomenon firsthand. It's all about territory and boundaries. Although anyone in Maine can get a license to trap lobsters, the territory has been staked out since lobsters existed. Each professional lobsterman can set up to 800 traps, but he (or she) had better do it in his territory. If encroachment occurs, buoys are cut, trap lines get knotted, or - worse - someone gets shot, which is what happened off Monhegan Island earlier this summer. See "In Maine, Tensions Over Ailing Lobster Industry" by Abby Goodnough for more details. I heard about this shooting on my cab ride from Owls Head to the Portland airport. The driver confirmed everything I had learned from Gilbert's novel and my short time on Owls Head, including the fact that tension over territory just comes with the lobster business. A lobsterman is either a pusher or a cutter (aggressively pushing into new territory or aggressively defending status quo). Here's a snippet from Gilbert's prologue on the subject:

"Lobsters do not recognize boundaries, and neither, therefore, can lobstermen. Lobstermen seek lobsters wherever those creatures may roam, and the this means lobstermen chase their prey all over the shallow sea and the cold-water coastline. This means lobstermen are constantly competing with one another for good fishing territory. They get in each other's way, tangle each other's trap lines, spy on each other's boats, and steal each other's information. Lobstermen fight over every cubic yard of the sea. Every lobster one man catches is a lobster another man has lost. It is a mean business, and it makes for mean men. As humans, after all, we become that which we seek. Dairy farming makes men stable and steady and reliable and temperate; deer hunting makes men quiet and fast and sensitive; lobster fishing makes men suspicious and wily and ruthless" (5).

Obviously there is some generalizing here, but I don't think anyone would deny that lobstering is a hard, tough, rough life. Definitely makes for good plot in her a novel.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

When not reading...

Mad Men is my new favorite show (and everyone else's old favorite), just barely edging out HBO's The Wire. The Wire deserves its own blog entry - one of these days! A friend and I were recently calling it The Moby Dick of television. Mad Men is something else entirely. I'll have to think of a good literary parallel; but in the meantime, read "Mad Men Crashes Woodstock's Party by New York Times columnist Frank Rich to get the gist.

Season Three starts tonight! 9 p.m. Tennessee time

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Why we love memoirs

Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes, 'Tis, and Teacher Man, died last week. I could never bring myself to read Angela's Ashes, but I adored 'Tis and Teacher Man. McCourt's ability to find humor in the worst and best of circumstances is what made both of these books so readable for me.

I'm linking to an interesting New York Times article here on McCourt and his influence on the memoir genre. Following is a quote from Jay Parini about why Americans are wild for the memoir (think Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love or James Frey's A Million Little Pieces):

"We should keep in mind that memoirs have always been the central form of American literature. I mean this. From Governor Bradford’s memoir of the original settlers in Plymouth — “Of Plymouth Plantation” — through Benjamin Franklin’s fabulous autobiography, Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden,” Mary Antin’s “Promised Land” or, say, “Up from Slavery” by Booker T. Washington or any of a thousand wonderful immigrant memoirs from the 19th and 20th centuries, this has been our most essential form.

The reason for this, I suspect, is that the United States has always been about singing one’s self, as Walt Whitman might say. The individual stands in for society. His or her story is rapidly taken as democratic."
~ Jay Parini

I would love to hear about other people's favorite American memoirs, so do write in if any come to mind. I'll just start by listing Ann Patchett's Truth and Beauty...

Friday, July 10, 2009

Summer Reading

Clearly I am not doing enough of it, since I haven't blogged since May. Honestly, I feel like my students probably do. I have "required reading" this summer, and I can personally attest to it being the biggest killjoy. Every day I look over at my copy of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and sigh. No offense to Hawthorne's genius, but it is just not where my heart is right now. Instead, here is what I just ordered from Amazon:

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe
The Forever War by Dexter Filkins
The Help by Katherine Stockett

Earlier this summer I did read Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, which I would highly recommend. I knew almost nothing about Frank Lloyd Wright's personal history before reading this book, and it definitely makes for a page-turner. Almost every character in the book is controversial; book clubs should have a heyday with this one.

Oh and I absolutely loved loved loved reading Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz! I'm a little late to the game on this one; it has been out for awhile now. Had me laughing aloud at every other page. Horwitz chronicles his travels throughout the South to find out why folks still obsess about the Civil War. The chapters are divided by state, and I would suggest skipping around rather than reading sequentially. The highlight of Horwitz's journey is meeting Robert Lee Hodge, a superhardcore Civil War reenactor who takes Horwitz under his wing as he travels around to various battlefields. In order to stay true to the time period, Hodge doesn't shower, eats hard tack, and sleeps outside in ditches in order to get as close as possible to real Civil War experience. Horwitz tries in vain to keep up. Incidentally, Hodge - as Horwitz discovers - is famous for the bloat. This means that he can come eerily close to looking like a dead Confederate body lying in the middle of the road. For this special talent he is sought after as an extra in movies and photographs. He also has an uncanny ability of converting reenactors into hardcores and organizing the troops for special reenactments. My favorite of these is Hodge's reenactment of Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg: picture a handful of mock Confederate soldiers charging up a hill with ten times the number of tourists charging after them, wild for a photograph. Horwitz said dodging tourists during the charge was like dodging mines in a field; they were everywhere, cameras flashing.

I mostly read Confederates in the Attic while on airplanes or in airports, and I found it a little uncomfortable. No one asked me about it, but Hodge's picture on the cover is so disturbing that I'm not surprised. However, nothing that can't be solved by a good book jacket.

Monday, May 18, 2009

"The Trees" by Philip Larkin

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again?
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say.
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.


Love Letter to Spring

Delphiniums in a Window Box
by Dean Young

Every sunrise, even strangers’ eyes.
Not necessarily swans, even crows,
even the evening fusillade of bats.
That place where the creek goes underground,
how many weeks before I see you again?
Stacks of books, every page, characters’
rages and poets’ strange contraptions
of syntax and song, every song
even when there isn’t one.
Every thistle, splinter, butterfly
over the drainage ditches. Every stray.
Did you see the meteor shower?
Did it feel like something swallowed?
Every question, conversation
even with almost nothing, cricket, cloud,
because of you I’m talking to crickets, clouds,
confiding in a cat. Everyone says,
Come to your senses, and I do, of you.
Every touch electric, every taste you,
every smell, even burning sugar, every
cry and laugh. Toothpicked samples
at the farmers’ market, every melon,
plum, I come undone, undone.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Wendell Berry: from Sabbath: Poems (1979)

I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.

Then what is afraid of me comes
and lives a while in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me,
and the fear of me leaves it.
It sings, and I hear its song.

Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.

After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing
the day turns, the trees move.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Rites of Spring (without the rain)

I'll admit, I'm pretty lazy when it comes to video links. Have yet to embrace You Tube, and as such, I'm probably the only person who has not yet seen the famous Susan Boyle singing sensation.

Today I was forced out of my laziness by Bill Cunningham, who is my favorite street reporter for the New York Times. In the Sunday paper he creates a collage of gorgeous photos based on what New Yorkers are wearing right now. For the last few weeks I've been stewing because his online versions have become videos and not slideshows. So I caved today. Clicked the link, waited for the video to load, and was ultimately thrilled that I went to all the effort.
Here is spring at its finest in New York: "On the Street: Premature Summer" by Bill Cunningham.

I had to dig around to find The New Yorker's recent article on Cunningham, which is equally wonderful. Here is the link to Lauren Collins's "Man on the Street."

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

a found quote

I happened upon one of those joys of teaching today...finding a quote in a student's art project that changed the sky to a slightly different shade of blue for me.

"We lead our lives like water flowing down a hill, going more or less in one direction until we splash into something that forces us to find a new course."

~Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Grad School Dilemma - New York Times Article

Wow. I have been waiting for someone to write this article for a long time. Here is Mark C. Taylor's "End the University as We Know It", in which he compares the grad school model to Detroit.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Literary Perspective

Roger Cohen, Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times, always comes across as a kindred spirit in his articles. He loves a good narrative structure and doesn't miss a beat in his own pieces. Here he is today on "The Inner Life."

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Editor's note: The Great Gatsby

I just finished rereading Gatsby and was struck once again by the publisher's 1992 Afterword. Excerpted is a letter by Maxwell Perkins to F. Scott Fitzgerald with the slimmest of suggestions for improving what Perkins knew right away was a masterpiece. Though the book did not gain critical acclaim in Fitzgerald's lifetime, Perkins offered the following comfort: "One thing I think we can be sure of: that when the tumult and shouting of the rabble of reviewers and gossipers dies, The Great Gatsby will stand out as a very extraordinary book" (204).

But there is more to share. Here is Perkins upon reading the manuscript -- and this is what I have been trying to impart to my students for most of February:

"The amount of meaning you get into a sentence, the dimensions and intensity of the impression you make a paragraph carry, are most extraordinary. The manuscript is full of phrases which make a scene blaze with life. If one enjoyed a rapid railroad journey I would compare the number and vividness of pictures your living words suggest, to the living scenes disclosed in that way. It seems in reading a much shorter book than it is, but it carries the mind through a series of experiences that one would think would require a book of three times its length" (201).

Today in class we read aloud gorgeous passages from chapter 8 and discussed their significance. I can think of many novels that would crumble under this exercise, but Gatsby was made for it. Here you go:

"For Daisy was young and her artificial world was redolent of orchids and pleasant, cheerful snobbery and orchestras which set the rhythm of the year, summing up the sadness and suggestiveness of life in new tunes. All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the "Beale Street Blues" while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust. At the grey tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with this low sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor" (158).

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Patchett on reading and readers

Thanks to Twilight, Harry Potter, and a massive number of imaginative teens, the number of people reading has increased. No one has had anything good to say about reading numbers in ages, hence Ann Patchett's ecstatic article in the Wall Street Journal titled "The Triumph of the Readers." Read this! She is wonderful, as always.
Happy reading...

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

"The Writer" by Richard Wilbur

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.


Sunday, February 1, 2009

My Book Hangover

I haven't had one of these in ages. Not since my stint with the Harry Potter series. But last night I stayed up until 1:34 a.m. just so that I could find out what happened next in Marisa De Los Santos's Love Walked In. My friend Courtney, who has impeccable book taste, sent me this one in the fall and said that I absolutely had to read it. That I would love it. My only excuse for not staying up reading it at all hours sooner is that there is a devastating scene in one of the early chapters. The book has two narrators: thirty-one year old Cornelia who drops out of her PhD English program (hello, can I relate or what?) and finds herself at loose ends, and eleven-year-old Clare, who watches her beautiful and once highly capable mother, Viviana, spin out of control in a very scary way. The latter is the reason I could not get into the book at first, but things have shifted for me over the last few months. For instance, I am totally engrossed in HBO's "The Wire," and if I can watch that scary show, I guess I can handle just about anything in fiction. So I returned to the book last night and exhausted myself in order to finish 3/4s of it. I still have 30 pages left which I plan on savoring this morning.
Reasons to read this book? Beautiful, witty people with lovely vocabularies populate it. Tons of references to old movies and movie stars and good literature. Unconventional love stories aplenty. I haven't read a book this fresh in awhile. Reminds me of "The Gilmore Girls," actually. The fun in that show was trying to keep up with all the literary references and witty banter, and so, too, with this book.

I am so tired I can barely string a sentence together about this one, but if I've turned you off with the Gilmore Girls references, I suppose I ought to mention that Cornelia also reminds me a little bit of Jay Gatsby, She is a fantastic dreamer. I need to get back to the book so that I can keep cheering her on.

Friday, January 30, 2009


I came across this gorgeous interpretation of inauguration and it reminded me of the many joys I experienced in D.C. this January. I had three weeks to soak it all up, but there is no way I could have said it (or illustrated it!) as well as Maira Kalman does. Here's the link to And the Pursuit of Happiness. Enjoy! D.C. is a city full of gems. I'm definitely going back to see this mound of butter painting. How did I miss it?