Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Marriage Plot by way of that Gatsby Review

I've recently picked up the Marriage Plot, the much-talked about latest from Jeffrey Eugenides. And while not too far in as of yet, I'm going to say something controversial here: I'm enjoying it.

Madeline Hanna, Leonard, Mitchel- they read as screwed up versions of people we've all known at one point or another. The action, in particular the drunken late night hook ups, the well meaning roommates, the angst of waiting for that phonecall, torn out of the diary of a college everyman. And the vignettes! (the central things to Jeffrey Eugenides work) they're as beautiful and luminous as ever.

But I'm on an island. Comparing notes with my little sister, with my (new) husband, with my husband's sister, and with my sliding doors literary me (don't ask), I was dismayed to find how everyone seems determined to find the plot simplistic, the material frothy, the concept too basic, the characters too shallow. Are people afraid to like a marriage plot? Are these the same peeps who refuse to acknowledge the rom-com as an entertainment genre?

Here's Thessaly La Force on the Marriage Plot for The Daily
"But here’s the thing. “The Marriage Plot” comes 18 years after Eugenides’ debut with the eerie “Virgin Suicides”; it comes nine years after the ambitious and epic “Middlesex.” One can’t help but feel — in the midst of all this meta-ness — that Eugenides has settled down. He’s metaphorically moved to the ’burbs, had the baby, gained the 10 pounds, and gotten comfortable.After covering teenage suicide and a hermaphrodite, he’s reached … a love story. Which gets back to something we’ve already established. The problem isn’t that you can’t tell a story of love and marriage in the 20th century. You can. We still do. The problem is, I think, that —...— no matter how you do it, it’ll be conventional. Girl meets boy. Girl meets another boy. Girl has to choose. Something happens. That’s it."

I can't help but notice how similar the critical reception to Jeffrey Eugenides bares to Fitzgerald's  Great Gatsby. Here's Mencken on the unimportant plot and the shallow character depiction in Gatsby:

"This story is obviously unimportant, and though, as I shall show, it has its place in the Fitzgerald canon, it is certainly not to be put on the same shelf, with, say, This Side of Paradise. What ails it, fundamentally, is the plain fact that it is simply a story—that Fitzgerald seems to be far more interested in maintaining its suspense than in getting under the skins of its people. It is not that they are false; it is that they are taken too much for granted. Only Gatsby himself genuinely lives and breathes. The rest are mere marionettes—oftenastonishingly lifelike, but nevertheless not quite alive.

What gives the story distinction is something quite different from the management of the action or the handling of the characters; it is the charm and beauty of the writing....

The rewards of literary success in this country are so vast that, when they come early, they are not unnaturally somewhat demoralizing. The average author yields to them readily. Having struck the bull‘s-eye once, he is too proud to learn new tricks. Above all, he is too proud to tackle hard work. The result is a gradual degeneration of whatever talent he had at the beginning. He begins to imitate himself. He peters out.

There is certainly no sign of petering out in Fitzgerald. After his first experimenting he plainly sat himself down calmly to consider his deficiencies. They were many and serious. He was, first of all, too facile. He could write entertainingly without giving thought to form and organization. He was, secondly, somewhat amateurish. The materials and methods of his craft, I venture, rather puzzled him. He used them ineptly. His books showed brilliancy in conception, but they were crude and even ignorant in detail. They suggested, only too often, the improvisations of a pianist playing furiously by ear but unable to read notes. These are the defects that he has now got rid of."

It seems like the obvious choice to dismiss The Marriage Plot as trivial, but I think, after winning our hearts with Virgin Suicides and further deepening the bond with Middlesex, Eugenides, like any good Marriage Plot protagonist, deserves the benefit of the doubt, here.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Jeffrey Eugenides & Jonathan Saffron Foer in Conversation

Great writing. Distinctive facial hair.

"JSF One of my biggest problems as a writer is that I get tired of what I’m working on. Or rather, I feel that a project can’t keep up with how I think about writing and how I think about the world. How were you able to commit yourself to one story for such a long period? And how did the passage of time influence what you were writing?
JE Well, one of the hardest things about writing Middlesex was trying to stay true to the original impulse. I felt young when I began the book but something more like middle-aged by the time I finished it. All sorts of life-altering things happened to me while I was writing it, too. My father died in a plane crash. I became a father myself. William H. Gass says it’s difficult writing a long book because as you go along, you get better, and then you have to go back and try to bring the rest of the book up to the same level. I did a lot of that. I obsessively went back and reworked the early parts of the book. Even so, I made sure the later chapters had the same voice and spirit as the early chapters."
JSF What wouldn’t you sacrifice for your writing?
JE I used to be scared of that line from Yeats, “perfection of the life or of the work.” I thought I’d never be able to make that choice, that I wasn’t disciplined enough, or committed enough. It sounded so painfully ascetic. But now I find that my work pretty much is my life. I don’t think I could operate without it. The lucky thing is that writing has only made me sacrifice things I can get along without: a frisky social life, a manly feeling of being “out in the world,” office gossip, teammates. You can be married and write. You can have a family and write. So you do have a life, after all. It’s waiting for you just outside your studio.
JSF I’m sorry, frisky social life?
JE Like the one you’re leading now, young man.
JSF Ahem. You allude, many times in Middlesex, to national epics, particularly Greek ones, of course. It seems to me that our modern epics — UlyssesOne Hundred Years of Solitude,Midnight’s Children — have had their greatest influence outside the countries of their origin. Am I wrong in sensing some ambition on your part to write a Greek epic for an American audience?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Nicholson Baker on Steve Jobs and Nabokov

"Vladimir Nabokov once wrote, in a letter, that when he’d finished a novel he felt like a house after the movers had carried out the grand piano. That’s what it feels like to lose this world-historical personage. The grand piano is gone."

Read more

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Sloane Crosley Anthologizes

"I think anthologies get a bad rep for being, how shall I say this — anthologized? But it's not so different from [the music] mix-picking experience. Yes, I could track down and hear all these songs on my own, but it's fun to have a little guidance. Assuming you like the tour guide well enough."-Sloane Crosley with Melissa Locker on The Hairpin 

Can't wait to pick this up! 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Signed Dave Eggers Early Work

Yesterday, I bought my first signed book, a reissued print of Sacrament, which is a revised and expanded edition of You Shall Know Our Velocity By Dave Eggers. I found it in a small bookstore in DUMBO in one of those cases under glass that they lock up.

Dave Eggers is one of the few writers who I've read everything by in real time. I feel like I sort of grew up with him. I picked up Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius in highschool when it came out. At the time, I didn't know who Dave Eggers was; no one really did. But I thought I would love a book written by someone who could come up with a title like that. And then there was the writing:

"Please look. Can you see us? Can you see us, in our little red car? Picture us from above, as if you were flying above us, in, say, a hellicopter, or on the back of a bird, as our car hurtles, low to the ground, straining on the slow upward trajectory but still at sixty, sixty-five, around the relentless, sometimes ridiculous bends of Highway 1. Look at us goddammit, the two of us slingshotted from the back side of the moon, greedily cartwheeling toward everything we are owed. Every day we are collection on what's coming to us, each day we're being paid back for what is owed, what we deserve, with interest, with some extra motherfucking consideration-we are owed, godammit-and so we are expecting everything, everything." p.47 HBWSG 

College was a dark period for pleasure reading, but after I emerged relatively unscathed, I picked up What Is The What and read it, after my room mate and I would get home from Max Fish, in my small, windowless Lower East Side apartment. When I read it, I wondered what had become of the author who wrote so beautifully and comically about what it means to be unmoored. The form of his work had changed. Reacting to his many critics maybe?

I read You Shall Know Our Velocity, later, on my couch in my first home. I felt cheated at Zetouin, as Eggers seemed to fully have "matured" into a style that is not his own. It makes YSKOV feel like something precious. The last of a writer that is no more.  Maybe it's like a sibling a few years older then you. Where the disparity in ages, mean you only sync up at certain key points in your life, the rest of the time you're going through different stages at different times and can't understand one another.

"At Heathrow we made straight for the information desk. A middle-aged woman, with curly iron-colored hair and the happy tired face of a third grade teacher in her last year, asked if she could help us and we said she could. We needed, we said, to know if there were any flights leaving within the next two hours to countries in Eastern Europe where no visa was required for entry."

I'm still hopeful that the next book he writes will be more like his first and less like his last.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Colum McCann for the New Yorker

Colum McCann, author of the Let The Great World Spin, has a piece in the New Yorker's September 12th edition this week about 9/11. Also speaking about the towers are David Remnick, Nick Paumgarten (more on this staff writer later), Jonathan Saffron Foer, Lorrie Moore, Zadie Smith, Edwige Danticat, & Elif Batuman. There are stories that turn experience into metaphor (Batuman) and parable (Smith), stories about a child's experience of 9.11(Foer) and a siblings (Moore). After ten years, these authors help give us pause. It's a powerful way to remember our great tragedy.

"When I think about his returning to his empty office and just sitting there, I like to imagine that it was not out of some heartbreakingly robotic sense of duty that might run in our family but, instead, due to the universal human desire to return to the fictional norm; the normal and the everyday are often amazingly unstoppable, and what is unimaginable is the cessation of them."-Moore

McCann's piece was far and away my favorite. He illustrates a woman, the day after the attacks, sitting on the UES eating chocolate cake. It's subtle and beautiful and my favorite bit is what he says at the end. "We do not necessarily need anniversaries when there are things we cannot forget. Yet I also recall this simple sensual moment. I still have no idea-after a decade of wondering-whether I am furious at the woman and the way she ate chocolate cake, or whether it was one of the most audacious acts of grief I've seen in a long, long time."

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Anais Incarnate

These Tocca images from the new Fall 11 ad campaign could be illustrations of Anais in Paris circa. 1920 don't you think? "The little black velvet jacket, the lace collar, the lacing over the breasts- how perfect, absolutely perfect. I like the way you cover yourself, too." p.23 Henry & June

"Anais, I was dazzled by your beauty! I lost my head, I felt wretched. I have been blind, blind, I said to myself. You stood there like a Princess. You were the Infanta! You looked thoroughly disappointed in me. What was the matter? Did I look stupid? I probably was. I wanted to get down on my knees and kiss the hem of your dress. So many Anaises you have shown me-and now this one!" -A note from Henry Miller to Anais Nin, p.16o, Henry & June

Read more on the Anais Nin-Henry Miller love affair in this post.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Joan Didion's The White Album

I picked up Joan Didion's book The White Album after writing a piece on a new zine by Jenna Wortham and Thessaly La Force for Matchbook Magazine. The zine, a selection of essays comprised primarily by women in the East Coast publishing industry, centers around the notion of a Girl Crush. Jennifer Egan contributes a piece on infatuation in an all-girls Catholic School, Emma Straub discusses her love for Jennifer Egan, Sadie Stein writes about children's book author Tasha Tudor and Zan Romanoff sites Joan Didion as her GC.

"I wanted to go east and get cold. Of course, no one knows this better than Joan Didion. She loves the state as only its exiles can; she recognizes that California is a land for the stupid and beautiful and she knows that there is still a romance to it which, even if you are not stupid or beautiful, makes you wish you belong. I began to read her seriously in my own exile, a Connecticut dorm room, where she remade California into a land of words, a place I recognized for its splendor as well as its terrible power. Finally, here was a landscape so wholly encompassing that it had room for us all—even the pale neurotics, its shaky, withdrawn daughters." 

Pretty much anyone who graduated with an MFAin the past 30 years is required to site Didion as one of their influences. Thessaly, once told me that she thought it was because women identified with Didion. In Didion they saw themselves: shy, bookish, wall flower types, who found their strength in writing. 
Didion got her start in Vogue's Features Department. She published her first book, Run, River, while working there. Didion later worked for The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and Esquire. Many of the pieces in The White Album have the same tone as the best DFW for Esquire pieces, a long form kind of interpretive journalism, where the hand of the author is deeply felt.  

Reading Didion's The White Album, an autobiographical homage to the 1960s, turns out to be a gratifying process. Each essay wraps up nicely in perfect philosophical packages. Nothing trails off here; there's no narrative bookend for sun rises or sun sets that leaves the reader wondering. We hear, frankly, in no uncertain terms, Didion's take.

On James Pike, an Episcopal Bishop, in James Pike, American 
"When the man who started out a winner was lying dead in the desert his brother-in-law joined the search party, and prayed for the assistance of God, Jim Jr., and Edgar Cayce. I think I have never heard a more poignant trinity." P.58

On Water Control In CA in Holy Water
"I had no further business in this room and yet I wanted to stay the day. I wanted to be the one, that day, who was shining the olives, filling the gardens, and flooding the daylong valleys like the Nile. I want it still." P66

On the CA Governor's Mansion in Many Mansions
"It is the kind of house that has a wet bar in the living room It is the kind of house that has a refreshment center. It is the kind of house in which one does not live, but there is no way to say this without getting into touchy and evanescent and finally inadmissible questions of taste, and ultimately of class. I have seldom seen a house so evocative of the unspeakable." P72.
Didion in a famous interview with Tom Brokaw from the 1970's tells NBC that she sees her writing as the only place in her life where she can be aggressive. She goes on to talk about the total control she has as a writer. "It's the only aggressive act I have. It's the only way I can be aggressive. You're totally in control of this tiny tiny world, right near the typewriter. I'm comfortable in the kitchen. I'm comfortable cooking. I'm comfortable performing in a way. I'm comfortable doing something." I think a lot of people feel this way about writing. But it's the part that bothers me most about Didion. There's something "mean-girl" about her attitude that's discomfiting. 

I'm half way through the book and I'm already exhausted by her passing judgement on every single thing her piercing eye falls on. It's the literary equivalent of that insecure friend who flinches with disdain about your decision to pass on desert; the toxic friend (as Vogue might call it) who zones in on your unique moral discrepancies and uses them as cocktail fodder. Not everything need or should be open to precise analyzation. I can't help asking myself why can't Joan just be nicer, eh?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

John Keats & Rejection

Abbie Cornish & Ben Whishaw in Bright Star

This mean spirited critique was crafted shortly after John Keats published his poem Endymion, now counted as one of his most important works. If only someone had been around to tell Keats what so many of us readers of Gawker & Jezebel know today: 'haters gonn' hate y'all". 

]John Gibson Lockhart wrote in Blackwoods Magazine: "To witness the disease of any human understanding, however feeble, is distressing; but the spectacle of an able mind reduced to a state of insanity is, of course, ten times more afflicting. It is with such sorrow as this that we have contemplated the case of Mr John Keats. [...] He was bound apprentice some years ago to a worthy apothecary in town. But all has been undone by a sudden attack of the malady [...] For some time we were in hopes that he might get off with a violent fit or two; but of late the symptoms are terrible. The phrenzy of the "Poems" was bad enough in its way; but it did not alarm us half so seriously as the calm, settled, imperturbable drivelling idiocy of Endymion. [...] It is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the [apothecary] shop Mr John, back to ‘plasters, pills, and ointment boxes’.

And here's John Keats in Endymion:

From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils        15
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
’Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms        20
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.
-courtesy of Bartleby

Friday, June 10, 2011

Hemingway's A Moveable Feast & The Sun Also Rises

Dree Hemingway, Ernest's Great-granddaughter, modeling for Vogue Nippon
No contest, A Moveable Feast is one of the best titles in the history of literature. There's something so perfect about it. And the market agrees. A quick google search yields a healthfood store in Houston Texas, a meals on wheels for AIDS patients, a catering company in Portland Oregon, and a defunct food blog with a thing for Anthony Bourdin, among others

Here's what Wikipedia has to say on MF's title "The title was suggested by Hemingway's friend A.E. Hotchner, author of the biography, Papa Hemingway. He remembered they had a conversation about the city during Hotchner's first visits there: "If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast"

Hemingway describes this early writing period as a halycon decade, punctuated by parties, aperatifs, and the occasional summer vacation. His tone is wistful. His marriage to first wife Hadley was still intact and he remained unencumbered by the shackles of success (stress is always relative). Reading A Moveable Feast is a little like listening to a fashion publicist reminiscing about the time her JV fieldhockey team won the New England Regionals albeit more eloquently. At it's heart, MF is a misty-eyed account of what Hemingway obviously considers to be his rosy youth. Made relevant by what this literary great accomplished in said rosy youth.
 It was this time in Paris in the early 20's which inspired The Sun Also Rises. And in the end of Moveable Feast, Hemingway talks about the germination of hist first book. Mostly about his gut feeling that he was working on something truly great. Until the day he died (suicide 1961-the same year, incidentally, that Henry Miller had Tropic of Cancer published in the USA by Grove), Hemingway considered SARs to be his finest achievement. The period of his life in which Moveable Feast is about and in which the Sun Also Rises was written, really did, as Hotcher predicted, stay with him.

PS: Hemingway actually first came to Paris in part because America had just entered its prohibition era. I.e we have the renowned debauchery of Paris and the potent lure of whiskey to thank for both A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises. I'll drink to that. And you best make it a Mojito, one of Hemingway's fave drinks.

Mojito Recipe from Hemingway & Bailey's Bartending Guide

6 fresh mint sprigs
1 oz. lime juice
3/4 oz. simple syrup
2 oz. light rum
Lime wedge

Crush 5 mint sprigs into the bottom of a chilled highball glass. Pour in lime juice, simple syrup, and rum. Fill glass with crushed ice. Garnish with lime wedge and remaining mint sprig. Sometimes a splash of club soda is added.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Henry & June: It's Complicated.

I read in Bloom's The Western Canon that Virginia Woolf looked to Jane Austen as Shakespeare's only true literary equal. Woolf thought that part of Austen's success lay in her extreme isolation. She, unlike many of her contemporaries, wrote quietly. She didn't show her novels to passing house guests or read excerpts aloud to salons full of her peers.

Well, Anais Nin, she shows her diaries to literally everyone. To Miller to Fred to her therapist. And then they all get embarrassed for her. I'm embarrassed for her. It's your classic ploy of a desperate girl  trying to attract male attention. The 1930's edition of dancing atop the bar at Marquis.

Here's Anais justifying her affair with Henry Miller:
"When Henry hears Hugos beautiful, vibrant, loyal, heart-stirring voice over the telephone, he is angry at the amorality of women, of all women, of women like myself. He himself practices all the disloyalties, all the treacheries, but the faithlessness of a woman hurts him. And I am terribly distresssed when he is in such a mood, because I have a feeling of being faithful to the bond between Hugo and me. Nothing that I live outside of the circle of our loves alters or diminishes it. On the contrary, I love himbetter because I love him without hypocrisy." p107.

This girl has issues. And it's distracting me from the book. At least Henry Miller, in Tropic of Cancer, accepts his flaws. He moves on--with his life and with the plot.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Tropic of Cancer + Water In A Desert

It turns out Tropic of Cancer rewards the patient (and, yes, desensitized) reader. The last fifty pages of TOC were some of the most beautiful and strangely introspective pages I've read. Then again, maybe that's like someone lost in a desert finding an oasis and calling it the sweetest water she's ever tasted... Miller certainly forces you to work for these last few pages.

The book picks up when Miller defects from Paris to take up a position as a professor of English in Lyon.  He doesn't take the post seriously, of course.

"It was one of those Franco-American amity arrangements which is supposed to promote understanding and good will between sister republics... a job for a rich man's son."

But he has a brief moment of revelation. Miller is alone at the 'penitentiary'. He's not getting along with the other teachers, he has no one to drink or generally carouse with and he gives us this one beautiful passage on the bottom of p.287. By this time the passage is abrupt for its lack of coarseness. The way that readers of TOC might have found the C word abrupt on p10, but had no choice but to be inured to it on p.210.

Here it is:
"Going back in a flash over the women I've known. Its like a chain which I've forged out of my own misery. Each one bound to the other. A fear of living separate, of staying born. The door of the womb always on the latch. Dread and longing. Deep in the blood the pull of paradise. The beyond. Always the beyond. t must have all started with the navel. THey cut the umbilical cord, give you a slap on the ass, and presto! you're out in the world, adrift, a ship without a rudder. You look at the stars and then you look at your navel. You grow eyes everywhere- in the armpits, between the lips, in the roots of your hair, on the soles of your feet. What is distant becomes near, what is near becomes distant. Inner outer, a constant flux, a shedding of skins, a turning inside out. You drift around like that for years and years, until you slowly rot, slowly crumble to piece,s get dispersed again. Only your name remains. "

It's as if Miller is telling us the whole 262 odd pages prior to the revelation (aside from a few strange, out of place segues on Manet) he is making a choice. A choice to show baseness and debauchery over the Paris of say Hemingway, a Paris of "gently winding" rivers through the "girdle of hills".

The rest of the book is dedicated to (what else) Miller's subsequent rejection of revelation which he does with great aplomb. But his rub with morality imbues the text with a newfound relevance. It modernizes Miller's plight. And almost makes you want to go back and read the whole thing again. Almost.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Western Canon

Or how to have a massive panic attack at how little of this you've actually managed to read in 27 years.
Thank you Harold Bloom. Click through to see the entire Canon here.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

After slogging through the first 150 pages of Henry Miller's Tropic of Camcer, I am now the ONLY person in my book club reading Tropic of Cancer. I guess this makes Miller 'pleasure reading' though the phrase doesn't feel appropriate.

Tropic of Cancer was first published in Paris in 1934. But it didn't make it to the US of A until 1961. It was banned as too obscene for American consumption for twenty-seven years. Finally, a scrappy Grove Press published the book. And they promptly became engaged in an obscenity trial. The verdict changed Americas censorship standards and paved the way for modern writers such as Norman Mailer, Philip Roth and (luckily! jk) Thomas Pynchon.
Henry Miller the original Wburg Hipster
I don't know what I expected exactly when cracking the spine, but it wasn't to be shocked. I pretty much figured that anything written in 1934 couldn't be any more scandalous than say the 'death by feces eating' in Gravity's Rainbow.

How wrong I was! This book has continually made me feel like all sorts of Victorian prude. Miller uses the C word as a moniker for women-kind on nearly every other page. Then there's that sex scene on pg 144 where Miller is watching Van Norden with a prostiute It's creepy and sad all at once. I'm not going to write it here. Too NSFW. Even the most innocuous landscape description, Miller finds a way to charge with bad language and sex analogies. It's almost farcical.** Here's a classic Miller simile on p. 172 "Paris takes hold of you, grabs you by the balls, you might say, like some lovesick bitch who'd rather die than let you get out of her hands." Okkaaay. Moving on...

I've been able to mostly get around the gross-out, eerie sex scenes. What I haven't been able to get over is how Miller managed to write this book, under financing from his lover, Anais Nin. It's incredible. Any sane writer would recognize that writing a book about sleeping with a trillion different prostitutes, contracting a case of the Clap, and getting seriously drunk every night when you're meant to be writing a book, is the epitome of 'biting the hand that feeds you'. No?

I've already bought my copy of Henry & June from Greenlight. H & J is a novelization of Anais Nin's diary during the time she was sleeping with Henry Miller. I can't wait to find out how totally twisted this relationship must have been.

**I thought maybe he was trying so hard to outdo Hemmingway's Moveable Feast he came out with this?

PS Also, another thing that's been incredibly disturbing for someone living in Manhattan in 2011 is all of the bedbug chatter. The characters are always hilariously leaving run-down hotels after having their evening fun with the you know what's and scratching themselves as they walk down the street. In another scene, Miller describes a dinner party where he had to angle for a position farthest from the bed, because he could see the bed 'crawling' ick. Don't worry, our protagonist stays of course. He's nothing if not game.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Helen Simpson on Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse

Image from Elle's 2009 "To The Lighthouse" editorial, featuring Burberry

"There are novels which have an almost uncanny power to renew themselves in the reader’s imagination. Each time I return to To The Lighthouse I’m struck by something that I haven’t noticed before: a flash of description, a moment of double-edged intimacy between two characters, a touch of sensory experience so immediate that it brings a shiver. More and more, as we grow older, these great novels declare their authority. They will certainly outlive us, like sea or rock or sand. We can inhabit their world for a while, and be changed by it, but they are forever moving beyond us to the next generation. It’s like visiting the same beach every summer, first as a child, then as a teenager, then as a parent surrounded by shivering children just out of the sea. Time passes. Those children are teenagers in wetsuits or bikinis, then suddenly adults lugging the paraphernalia of parenthood themselves. The present does not obliterate the past, but cohabits with it so that sometimes one is visible and sometimes the other. Any number of lifetimes on the beaches of St Ives may be no longer than a summer’s day."
-From the newly released paperback as published by the Orange Inheritance Collection, courtesy of Granta

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Billy Collins Litany

Last night, Ad and I celebrated our engagement with around 60 of our nearest and dearest. There were some Livre Life readers there too! The party had me thinking about the ceremony and the dinner to follow. Ad and I have asked two of my best friends from college to do readings at the ceremony. But I have yet to find something appropriate for them to read. While on the hunt, I came upon this hilar. Billy Collins take on a sonnet. Not appropriate, but entertaining nevertheless.

You are the bread and the knife,
The crystal goblet and the wine...
-Jacques Crickillon

You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general's head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman's tea cup.
But don't worry, I'm not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and--somehow--the wine.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Paris Review Spring Revel Pics

Online editor Thessaly La Force posted these pics from the Paris Review's Spring Gala. Literary greats
Anne Beatie, Richard Price, Mary Gaitskill and Colum McCann rubbed shoulders with relative newbies such as Nick McDonnell, author of An Expensive Education and Twelve. The party was infused with a dose of Hollywood glam lent by the actor Robert Redford and actress Julia Stiles. Read the full report here.

Friday, April 15, 2011


This came in the mail on Tuesday night. Hence, the radio silence. My boyfriend fiance is planning on staying home all weekend to finish it. What about you guys? Have you picked up your copy yet? Are you going to? At 560 pages part of me kind of wishes it was longer still.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Howards End Conclusion

Phew. It feels like it was a long time coming. But we finally concluded our Howard's End book club with a dinner at our friend's new apartment on Waverly Place. Over gazpacho (secret ingredient: pureed avacado) and family style mexican, we discussed EM Forster's novel.
A few of the members of our book club were concerned with Forster's chauvinist depiction of women as option-less. Throughout the book, EM Forster via posh toff Henry Wilcox lampoons the domestic habits of women. Ms. Wilcox before her death gives Helen and Margaret the deed to Howard's End on a mere whim, the Shlegel's luncheon of ideas is lambasted as frivolity, and Margaret and Helen are given to fits of fancy i.e. Margaret jumps out of the carriage to save a runover dog and the men wonder aloud to themselves if perhaps she's been possessed by a devil. WWVWD*?

In the conclusion, EM Forster and the Merchant Ivory Collection provide us with a complex sort of closure. The sisters, Margaret and Helen Shlegel, are reunited once more at Howard's End. Margaret and Mr. Wilcox, the ultimate anti-feminist frat boy, stay together- despite Mr. Wilcox's past infidelity and his present hypocrisy. But Margaret has learned to properly manipulate her man (Yay EM Forster!?). It is she who holds the cards in this sad little family unit. We agreed (bar a few of us who, let's not lie, watched the movie instead of read the book) that the ending was far from happy.

Another point that was much discussed was the character of Leonard Bast. Most people felt that Leonard, despite his poetic soul, a trait that in many novels of the 19th century would be applauded, was sort of pathetic. They thought that his inability to come up with moral grounding for his ideas were to the detriment of his character. When the Schlegel sisters ask him why he chose to walk through the evening and into the day, he can't come up with an answer.

I think that Leonard is just another example of one of Forster's typically robust characters. Leonard isn't an idiot for not being able to base his feelings on anything; he just hasn't been given the same intellectual tools as families such as the Wilcoxs or the Shlegels. It's this degree of subtlety that keeps people returning to Forster. Throughout his body of work, Forster continually gives us characters that are flawed in ways that would have gone against the grain of their literary antecedents. It was an interesting effect to make Leonard a character that pushes the reader to form her (it's an all girls book club okay) own conclusions about the traditionally lauded stereotype 'pauper with a heart of gold' storyline.

EM Forster was, of course, a member of Virginia Woolf's Bloomsbury group and he would have been intimately familiar with early 20th century fiction's cliches and tired storylines. It's like a breath of fresh air to read a novel where the characters, plot, and ending have been turned on its side and reexamined.

*What would Virgina Woolf do?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Howard's End Book Club is Tomorrow

The big day is almost here! All eight of us are meeting at our friends house in the West Village for dinner, drinks and a discussion on EM Forster. We'll be reporting back Thursday, so make sure you check in! xx A & E

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Movie Adaptation: Mrs. Dalloway

After a long weekend with Acton, Victoria and Adam in East Hampton, I unwound Sunday evening by watching the 1997 Marleen Gorris adaptation of Mrs. Dalloway. There are potential pitfalls in a movie version of Woolf's classic since so much of Mrs. Dalloway's splendor lies in the prose. But Gorris manages to create a fine, lasting interpretation of Woolf's book.

This was in part due to the insanely good acting, for sure. Vanessa Redgrave as the older Mrs. Dalloway is luminous and sage; Natasha McElhone as the younger Mrs. Dalloway and Lena Headly as Sally perfectly encapsulate the girls' complex relationship. (I was inspired to pick up Orlando after reading that the Sally-Clarissa dynamic pays homage to the famous Virginia-Vita Sackville West affair). Peter was played by a Robert Downey Jr. look alike, no joke, named Alan Cox and was a joy to watch.

The movie makes clear the comparison, which Woolf intended, between the clinically depressed Septimus and the trenchant frippery of Mrs. Dalloway. Septimus goes to the war, faces his demons and kills himself; Dalloway chooses comfort over love, fills her days with parties and dress mending- but endures.

In the book, we're lead through Mrs. Dalloway's London by a motley host of characters. But the two ideological figure heads of the novel are clearly D & S. In some of Virginia Woolf's earliest notes on the book she says, "I adumbrate here a study of insanity & suicide: the world seen by the sane and insane side by side."

The movie, without the syntactical fireworks Woolf is known for, distills and clarifies her thematic vision, which is helpful if your not reading the book in a college English class.  It's the perfect companion piece. Let us know what you think!

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Dedication Poems of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

If hard experience is the stuff that precedes meaningful poetry, than surely Ted Hughes had enough big, dark matter walking around with him to birth a small library. And, true that, his body of work is certainly prolific. Hughes was the British Poet Laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998. A full list of his works can be found here.

Hughes married Sylvia Plath in 1956. At the time, Plath was a Fulbright scholar at Cambridge; Hughes had already begun to publish his poetry in the St. Botolphs Review, a literary magazine which he and some of his Pembroke peers founded. Plath attended the aforementioned journal's launch party and met Hughes there. They married just four months later.

Here's a poem by Plath written in the Spring of their relationship:

Ode for Ted
From under crunch of my man's boot
green oat-sprouts jut;
he names lapwing, starts rabbits in a rout
legging it most nmble
to sprigged hedge of bramble,
stalks red fox, shrewd stoat.

Loam-humps, he says, moles shunt
up from delved worm-hhaunt;
blue fur, moles have; hefting chalk-hulled flint
he with rock splits open 
knobbed quartz; flayed colors ripen
rich, brown, sudden in sunglint;

For his least look, scant acres  yield:
each finger furrowed field
heaves forth stalk, leaf, fruit nubbed emerald;
bright grain sprung so rarel 
he hauls to his will early;
at his hand's stuanch hest, birds build.

Ringdoves roost well within his wood
shirr songs to suit which mood
he saunters in; how but most glad
cold be this adam's woman
when all earth his words do summon
leaps to laud such man's blood.

-21 April 1956

The Plath- Hughes relationship deteriorated significantly in the following years, an article by A Alvarez in the New Yorker attributes the decline to Plath's poetic destiny.

"Finally, provoked by his wife's violence, into blind rage, he unwittingly handed her the key she had been looking for: "'Marvellous?' I shoulted...'That's the stuff you're keeping out of your poems!'" Always the good student, she went down into the cellarage, key in hand. But the ghouls she released were malign. They helped her write the great poems first collected in "Ariel," but they destroyed her marriage, and then they destroyed her."

Hughes and Plath split in 1963 after Plath discovered that Hughes had been cheating on her with Assia Welvill (also Susan Alliston at the time). Plath committed suicide just six months later, Assia Welvill followed suit, killing herself and her small child in the exact same manner as Plath-gas in the kitchen.*

Hughes never publicly discussed his relationship with either woman. Plath fans site Hughes as indirectly or directly responsible for their reigning heroines early death. Hughes's public silence on the subject of Plath never aided his case.

But in 1998 he published Birthday Letters, a book of poems that explores his relationship with Plath in heartbreaking detail. No one knew it at the time, but Hughes was suffering from terminal cancer. He died that same year. Birthday Letters went on to win the Whitbread Poetry Award, the TS Elliot Prize for Poetry and the Forward Poetry Prize. It is believed to be his best work by some and a study in image/spin by others.

A Pink Wool Knitted Dress
In your pink wool knitted dress
Before anything had smudged anything. 
You stood at the altar. Bloomsday.

Rain-so that a just bought umbrella
Was the only furnishing about me
Newer than three years inured.
My tie- sole, drab, veteran RAF black-
Was the used-up sybol of tie.
My cord kjacket-thrice-dyed black, exhausted. Just hanging on to itself.

I was a post-war, utility son-in-law!
Not quite the Frog-Prince. Maybe the Swineherd
Stealing this daughter's pedigree dreams
From under her watchtowered searchlit future.

(two stanzas missing)

You were transfigured. 
So slender and new and naked,
A nodding spray of wet lilac.
You shook with joy, you were ocean depth
Brimming with God
You said you saw the heavens open
And show riches, ready to drop upon us.
Levitated beside you, I stood subjected
To a strange tense: the spellbound future.

In that echo-gaunt, weekday chancel
I see you,
Wrestling to contain your flames
In your pinkwool knitted dress
And in your ete-pupils-great cut jewels
Jostling their tear-flames, truly like big jewels
Shaken in a dice-cup and held up to me.

In the Happy Birthday poems critics often talk about the appropriation of Plath's lexicon by Hughes. I think it's interesting that in the early poems of Plath, in particular, the poem To Ted, Plath seems to do the same thing. She's almost poking fun at the traditional iconography of nature poems. It's irreverant and has none of the self-awareness that Plath's later work is famous for. And then those last few lines: how but most glad/ could be this adam's woman/when all earth his words do summon/leaps to laud such man's blood. His writing holds command of natures plenty. It's the work of a women in love with her new husband's talent.

*Maybe Susan was feeling guilty for this small atrocity: Several weeks after her death, Assia Gutmann sent the final gas bill for Plath's flat to one of Plath's best friends with a note that read, "You were her friend. You pay the bill." (Paul Alexander, NY Observer, 04.05.98)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sylvia Plath & The Collected Poems

Last night, our parents took Acton, Victoria and I out to a wonderful dinner at Remi. Over an assortment of shared appetizers, the most tasty being a mushroom polenta, Sylvia Plath came up. I realized that, after reading Ariel once in highschool, I had somehow neglected to ever pick up the Bell Jar.  Nor had I ever read the Pulitzer Prize winning Collected Poems, which Ted Hughes published on behalf of Plath posthumously in 1981.

I stopped by Greenlight this morning and picked up a copy of both books. In the Collected Poems,  Hughes has written a five page introduction. The Hughes-Plath relationship was, of course, famously fraught. Hughes cheated on Plath. And the couple separated just six months before the author fell in to a deep depression and took her life in a kitchen oven. Plath fans have oft-sighted Hughes's mistreatment of his young wife as the catalyst for her suicide.

Hughes's introduction feels a little perfunctory for my tastes. He touches mostly on the decisions he had to make in order to give a chronological rendering of Plath's poems. But he does offer this one insight:

 "Her attitude to her verse was artisan like: if she couldn't get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy. The end product for her was not so much a succesful poem, as something that had temporarily exhausted her ingenuity."

That idea of writing because it's pouring from you really struck me. And I kept it with me while I read through the poems this afternoon. Here's one of my favorites from Collected Poems thus far. I think it so perfectly captures the listlessness of depression.

I Am Vertical

But I would rather be horizontal.
I am not a tree with my root in the soil.
Sucking up minerals and motherly love
So that each March I may gleam into leaf,
Nor am I the beauty of a garden bed
Attracting my share of Ahs and spectacularly painted,
Unkowing I must soon unpetal.
Compared with me, a tree is immortal
And a flower-head not tall, but more startling,
And I want the one's longevity and the other's daring.

Tonight, in the infinitesimal light of the stars,
The trees and flowers have been strewing their cool odors.
I walk among them, but non of them are noticing.
Sometimes I think that when I am sleeping
I must most perfectly resemble them-
Thoughts gone dim.
It is more natural to me, lying down.
Then the sky and I are in open conversation.
And I shall be useful when I lie fown finally:
Then the trees may touch me for once, and the flowers have time for me.
-28 March 1961