Archive for the 'Books' Category

My (not so) Great American Novel

December 2, 2009

If anyone out there is still listening, I apologize for my eight-month absence, but I’ve finally given birth (prematurely, I might add) to my first novel thanks to nanowrimo, a dandy little exercise in pain, humiliation, self-motivation and the limitations of caffeine.
Bottom line, it meant tapping out about 1,700+ words a day during the entire month of November, which is complicated by the fact that it is my second-busiest month of the year at work and full of other friendly distractions, like Thanksgiving. I spent almost the entire month about 2,000 words behind (you can track your progress on the site), but, thanks to some marathon sessions over the long weekend, I managed to finish a day early and several words over the 50,000-word goal (instead of a day late and a dollar short, as is my wont).
I admit I hesitated at signing up, at committing to having a short novel (and 50k is short) by the end of the month. I have rooms full of unfinished projects, piles of yarn and fabric and paper and books, with two abandoned master’s degrees lodged in there somewhere. The Spouse just rolls his eyes when I announce a new goal. But I really wanted to do this. I wanted this off my Life List. And I somehow managed to pull it off.
It is, of course, my roman à clef, my thinly veiled autobiography (well, maybe 30 percent of it anyway), which Maud Newton (who is attempting a similar feat in her own first novel) in a well-timed blogpost suggests that we all have to get out of our systems before we can do any REAL writing. As a measure of what constitutes real writing, Maud leaves it to her hero, Mark Twain: “A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it.”
Wanna read it? Well, you can’t. This baby is UGLY. It isn’t even close to being done. There’s even a bunch of stuff that I’ve got to get rid of, little stories and anecdotes that pleased me at the time but don’t do anything to move the plot forward. In fact, the more autobiographical parts are the least interesting. I was at my best during November when I sat down and just let the characters loose, when I was able to get out of my own way, as Jane puts it. For a few glorious moments, it actually got to be a little Zen.
I hope to have a full draft by the end of December, and then I’ll start the real rewrite, including a bunch of research, fact-checking and some field trips.
I’ll definitely do it again. Next November, I’ll issue a call for y’all to join me.


David Foster Wallace on worshipping

September 24, 2008

I’ve only read writer David Foster Wallace around the edges, mostly in newspaper articles and book extracts, but the tributes published in the wake of his recent suicide, at age 46, have made me want to hear more. The Wall Street Journal has published a version of a Kenyon College commencement speech he gave in 2005 that is really mind-bending in its simple power. In it, he decries what he calls “default-setting” thinking, in which we place ourselves at the center of the universe and therefore at odds with just about everyone and everything else:

[I]f you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. [Emphasis mine.]

If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings.

We’re now harvesting the grapes of wrath for a decade or more of worshipping money and power on an unprecedented level, and the entire nation is in danger of being “eaten alive” by it. And the saviors who are coming forward sound suspiciously like the charlatans who got us in this mess in the first place.

Wallace knows, or knew. He knew that, in light of such huge forces over which we have so little influence, we have only our personal freedom to exercise:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

That “infinite thing” we have lost may be our very selves, or our futures, or our children’s futures.

Update: Wallace’s family talks about his last days.

Adventures at Midlife: Did feminism help?

July 17, 2008

How can you NOT want to read an article that begins: “As you may have heard, some 50 years after Betty Friedan sprang us from domestic jail, we women … seem to have made a mess of it.” Says Sandra Tsing Lo, a regular contributor to the Atlantic, the fruits of the feminist revolution appear to be sisterhood, empowerment — and eight hours a day in a cubicle.

(Her latest article is actually a commentary based around a couple of new women’s books, Linda Hirshman’s funny Get to Work … And Get a Life, Before It’s Too Late and Neil Gilbert’s more scholarly A Mother’s Work: How Feminism, the Market and Policy Shape Family Life.)

After wittily dissecting some of the feminist missteps over the last several decades, Lo ultimately admits to having escaped cubicle hell:

Work … family—I’m doing it all. But here’s the secret I share with so many other nanny- and housekeeper-less mothers I see working the same balance: my house is trashed. It is strewn with socks and tutus. My minivan is awash in paper wrappers (I can’t lie—several are evidence of our visits to McDonald’s Playland, otherwise known as “my second office”). My girls went to school today in the T-shirts they slept in. But so what? My children and I spend 70 hours a week of high-to-poor quality time together. We enjoy ourselves.

Oh, good for YOU, girl, although I would bet she earned her current life by spending several years in the trenches with the rest of us. I considered myself lucky to be able to work part-time and even spend a couple of years at home freelancing when my sons were small. That might be why I now have an office with A DOOR I CAN SHUT and not some cubby hole or other shared space. I didn’t seem to lose momentum.

Although I identify with the feminist camp, I sort of stopped checking in regularly on the women’s movement after Gloria Steinem. For some reason, her blonde good looks, Smith education and smooth delivery made her just another beautiful female I couldn’t compete with, so I sort of opted out of the fight — which, come to think of it, is what I usually do when looks or status factor into any social or business equation. I’ve shed enough blood — and tears — in those arenas to willingly go into combat again.

So what did we win from our feminist ways? Employers now at least have to pay lip service to equality in the workplace, although privately held companies, which don’t have to publish salary scales, are likely still favoring men. Women seem to be more visible in top-tier positions, but there’s a definite lag, particularly considering that in some spheres we make up at least — if not more than — 50 percent of the workforce. And the wage gap remains firmly in place.

In my darker moments, I sometimes think that equality has heaved on me just one more area where I don’t seem to measure up. Society now expects women to make a quantifiable contribution, and my 30-odd years (most of them WERE odd) in the workforce find me still entrenched in middle management — by choice, I must say, to accommodate all the other things I wanted to do. Moving up always meant staying longer and later, and I just didn’t want to. (Admission: Being part of a two-career family made that possible.) At 55+, I’m not enthusiastic about my prospects of moving much further.

SO WHY AM I APOLOGIZING FOR ALL THIS?! Wasn’t it all about choice in the first place? Says Lo of the current flight of advanced-degree-holding women back to Betty Friedan‘s suburban nightmare:

And what are our fallen M.B.A. sisters of [Harvard] doing? Kvells one Harvard-grad-turned-stay-at-home-mom, on the subject of her days:

I dance and sing and play the guitar and listen to NPR. I write letters to my family, my congressional representatives, and to newspaper editors. My kids and I play tag and catch, we paint, we explore, we climb trees and plant gardens together. We bike instead of using the car. We read, we talk, we laugh. Life is good. I never dust.

Wow. Sounds good to me — if you can afford it. It just never seemed like an option for me.

Elaine Dundy, RIP

May 8, 2008

I believe I’ve mentioned that I’m a big fan of Terry Teachout, the writer and theatre critic of The Wall Street Journal, which I’ve found has some of the best feature writing in the whole industry. Because of a blog post he put up several moons ago, I ordered* a copy of Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, and was delighted to receive an original Penguin Books edition that was nearly as old as I am. (It’s probably worth something…)

Despite the 1958 publication date and my copy’s yellowing pages, I was astonished to discover how fresh her writing was. Other than a very few political or cultural references, the book could have been written yesterday. Teachout calls her the “spiritual grandmother of Bridget Jones,” and he’s absolutely right.

We meet Sally Jay Gorce as she is stumbling along the streets of Paris, dressed in an evening gown because the rest of her clothes are at the laundry. (Oh, I’ve been there! Haven’t you?) And things just go downhill from there for Our Girl in Paris, who has the most appalling taste in men. She’s one of those heroines you want to throttle half the time, because she’s always shooting off her mouth and getting in the most dreadful messes.

If you don’t believe me, Maud Newton has posted Teachout’s introduction to the most recent edition of The Dud Avocado. Dundy reportedly endured a terrible marriage to critic Kenneth Tynan, had a daughter and wrote several other well-received books, but it was her fictionalized version of her life in Paris in the ’50s that made her mark. Sleep well, Elaine. Sally Jay never seemed to.

*I almost always buy books used and online. I can even get fairly recent titles if I wait a few weeks after they’re published. Saves paper and gas. My little sacrifice for the environment. And I never know what’s going to show up in the mail!

The Feminine Mistake?

April 11, 2008

Ask Allison has an interesting post on a book by Leslie Bennetts, The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?, a title that appears to be pretty inflammatory for some readers.

Her thesis: Women cannot afford to give up careers to become full-time homemakers. (Yikes! I can feel the heat already!) Before you break out the flame-throwers, know that Bennetts’ position appears largely economical, not social. “Can we afford to become dependent on our husbands?” she asks. Factor in job layoffs, divorce rates, marital infidelity, inflation, medical costs, school tuition and the sheer difficulty of re-entering the workforce after even just a few years away, and it becomes a compelling question.

(Many of the customer reviews on Amazon criticize her oversimplification of the issue. “According to Ms. Bennetts, if you decide to stay at home with your children, you’ll end up broke, unfulfilled and alone,” says one mother. But another reviewer has a more sage approach: “A man,” she admits, “is not a financial plan.”)

I have not yet read the book, but I understand what a hot button this topic is. Years ago, at a five-years-post-high-school luncheon with some old friends, I innocently asked what everyone had been doing and if they were working. (I was unmarried at the time, and dumb.) One woman who got married two weeks after graduation absolutely BRISTLED at the question. “I have two kids, and I work just as hard as anyone who has a JOB!” she fussed. Come to think of it, I haven’t gone to one single reunion lunch where some SAH mom didn’t take a jab at me about work and home.

It’s because I’ve always been employed. I just have. I worked part-time when the boys were very small, including a year when I helped The Spouse with a freelance editing business, and eventually went back to full-time, at first for the insurance benefits and then for the income. I didn’t work to make anyone else feel bad or to make some kind of personal statement. I just worked. I was raised not to expect anyone to take care of me. I have a college degree. I’m good at what I do. Thanks to EEO and what friends tell me is my take-no-prisoners persona, I haven’t experienced too much grief about it from my male colleagues. But I so clearly irritate some women that I’ve learned to be really low-key about what I do.

I wish some of the women who get their panties in a wad about this subject could sit in on the class for “displaced homemakers” my friend teaches at the local community college. (She’s a survivor of the marriage wars herself, but her husband never made any money, so her transition back to single life was comparatively smooth financially.) She tells me that these women — mostly older mothers with children still at home and no skills that could be readily applied to the workplace — are like deer caught in headlights. They were broadsided by their husbands’ departures, and they have no clue what to do now. Their stories make me want to weep.

My take? If you can afford to stay at home with the kids, GREAT! But don’t abdicate your responsibility for your financial future. It’s not fair to you, or him.

This, um, STINKS

April 10, 2008

images3.jpeg The Times Online has an excerpt from a new book by Katherine Ashenburg about, well, being smelly — or not. (Via.)

Even more than in the eye or the nose, cleanliness exists in the mind of the beholder. Every culture defines it for itself, choosing what it sees as the perfect point between squalid and over-fastidious… To modern Westerners, our definition of cleanliness seems inevitable, universal and timeless. It is none of these things, being a complicated cultural creation and a constant work in progress.

She quotes, for example, a well-known excerpt from a letter to the Empress Josephine from a war-weary Napoleon: “I will return to Paris tomorrow evening. Don’t wash.” (He clearly wanted her as she was, a cultural preference that somehow has not survived the ages —except maybe among the French.)

For most women of a certain age, body odor has been a life-long hang-up. I have vivid — and largely painful — memories of seventh-grade gym classes complicated by the lack of any kind of effective deodorant. It wasn’t that we didn’t use them. They just didn’t work. “The biggest complaint I get about seventh-grade girls,” our gym teacher said, wagging her finger at us, “is that they STINK!” I added it to my growing list of personal failures, and lived largely in shame until the advent of better-working antiperspirants in the Seventies.

And there were other sources of shame. I also remember spending hours in my father’s pharmacy wrapping boxes of sanitary napkins in plain white paper so that the women (and the occasional brave man) who bought them wouldn’t be, um, embarrassed at purchasing such an intimate product. Ashenberg felt my pain:

For me, the epitome of feminine daintiness was the model who posed on the cover of a Kotex pamphlet about menstruation, titled: You’re a Young Lady Now. This paragon, a blue-eyed blonde wearing a pageboy hairdo and a pale blue shirtwaist dress, had clearly never had a single extraneous hair on her body and smelled permanently of baby powder. I knew I could never live up to her immaculate blondness, but much of my world was telling me I had to try.

Being “dirty” and “guilty” are so embedded in the modern psyche that they have almost merged. The unfortunate Gov. Elliott Spitzer is only the latest public figure to have revealed a dark and dirty side to his carefully scrubbed public image.

The archetypal link between dirt and guilt, and cleanliness and innocence, is built into our language… We talk about dirty jokes and laundering money. When we step too close to something morally unsavory at a business meeting or a party, we say: “I wanted to take a shower.” Pontius Pilate washed his hands after condemning Jesus to death, and Lady Macbeth claims, unconvincingly: “A little water clears us of this deed,” after persuading her husband to kill Duncan.

And, if the television commercials and menopause sites are to be believed, those of us of a certain age now face the specter of increasing body odor, and I’m not talkin’ just feet. Not only will our lined faces, expanding girth and gray hair be objects of offense, but no one will want to take a deep breath around us. It is even suggested that we end up smelling like MEN. Is there no end to our affront to society?

Better get the ice floes ready.

The Compleat Woman: Having it all in 2007

April 9, 2008

I just spotted this from the Brits:

If a woman has a serious career, how many children can she get away with? And how do women with large families manage their careers — and their marriages? These were the questions Valerie Grove set out to answer in 1987 in The Compleat Woman: Marriage, Motherhood, Career — Can She Have it All? Long out of print, the book gave an extraordinarily intimate insight into the home lives of 20 women…

To qualify as “compleat” (the title was a play on Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler), they had to have been married for more than 25 years, have had three or more children and a stellar career. In the late 1980s, with accelerating divorce rates, women secure in the workplace and the birth rate plummeting, Grove wondered whether these working mothers of three or more were an endangered species: “The kind of mothers I write about here may well prove to be the last of their kind.”

(Let’s see… Married 29 years. Check. Two kids. Oh, sorry, scratch that. Stellar career. Uh, could you define stellar?)

The more I think about Grove’s thesis, the more it sounds like 1987, not 2007. Even though she zeros in on three issues that have preoccupied many of us for years, her scale seems curiously out of date, which could be why the book is out of print.

The Guardian’s Viv Groskop observes that “[S]tatistically very few in the current generation are likely to achieve more than one of these, let alone all three.” Oh, forget the CURRENT generation, Viv. I don’t have many friends in MY generation who qualify on all three counts.

A slight digression: I subscribe to The Spouse’s Brass Ring Theory: Very few of us will rise to the pinnacles of our professions. Grabbing the brass ring takes a lot of talent, hard work, personality — and a certain elusive element, call it luck, chance, karma, Divine Providence, timing, what you will. Most of us, hopefully, will achieve some level of success in a pleasant environment with adequate and maybe even generous compensation, and will pick up some great stories, good colleagues and useful skills in the process (along with the workplace disasters, office creeps and inevitable scut-jobs, which I won’t dwell on).

So, stellar career? No, but I’ve been lucky, I have a few plaques hanging on my office wall attesting to my adequacy, and I’ve had a good time so far. The two sons, whose pictures also figure prominently in my office decor, have been a complete joy, and while I wouldn’t have minded a third (or fourth, even), it didn’t happen.

That my marriage has endured, even thrived may be the most interesting milestone. (Divine Providence, indeed!) I watched my two BFFs marriages of 30+ years fall apart within three years of each other. One has a career, one doesn’t, but both now take a large measure of satisfaction from their grown children and grandchildren. And they both have rich social and inner lives. Would they have any place in Grove’s 1987 notion of compleat-ness?

Grove even admits in the Guardian article that her thesis may have been flawed from the get-go, particularly in light of her sample group, which was a very British mix of titles, academics and free spirits:

It took months to get the interviewees to talk to her about the minutiae of their private lives and the results, Grove agrees, were mixed. Not one gave her the advice she craved: the secret of how to do it. There was no real consensus on how to make it work: all their lives were too different and, usually, quite odd.

“There is a sort of aura of strangeness about the whole book and I realised very quickly afterwards that I always felt more rooted in ordinary life than any of them. Initially the working title was Impossible Women because they really were so strange and unusual.” …For many, there was definitely an element of privilege in their situations.

Do we even talk about “having it all” anymore? If we do, I think the definition of “all” has become much, much more personal.

Funny girls

April 5, 2008

images2.jpg Vanity Fair, that bastion of impartiality, begs to differ that women aren’t funny in this.

“There is no question that there are a million more funny women than there used to be,” says Nora Ephron, the writer and film director. “But everything has more women. There are more women in a whole bunch of places, and this is one of them.” Ephron knows exactly why female comedians are currently much more successful than they used to be. “Here’s the answer to any question: cable,” she says. “There are so many hours to fill, and they ran out of men, so then there were women.”

Ah, Nora. Don’t miss I Feel Bad About My Neck, her collection of essays on aging. And for those of us of a certain age, there’s always Mrs. Hughes. Oh, and the ageless Rita Rudner, who claims that men are afraid of eyelash curlers. “I keep one under my pillow instead of a gun,” she says. And this: “My husband are trying to decide whether to get a puppy or have a baby. We’re trying to decide if we want to ruin our carpets or ruin our lives.”

Book bonding

April 2, 2008

images.jpeg Rachel Donadio, in a recent NYTimes article, makes the case for literature being a possible deal-breaker when it comes to relationships:

Anyone who cares about books has at some point confronted the … problem: when a missed — or misguided — literary reference makes it chillingly clear that a romance is going nowhere fast. At least since Dante’s Paolo and Francesca fell in love over tales of Lancelot, literary taste has been a good shorthand for gauging compatibility. These days, thanks to social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, listing your favorite books and authors is a crucial, if risky, part of self-branding. When it comes to online dating, even casual references can turn into deal breakers.

The Spouse and I bonded early on a love of Shakespeare, despite an on-going argument about it being great theatre or great literature (he would win, of course, but Will is still a damn good read). Our tastes have kind of diverged from there, his to a diet of Stephen King, Orson Scott Card and Frank Herbert and the like, mine to a lot of non-fiction, mystery novels and works by women. We’ll occasionally exchange titles, but we certainly don’t base our relationship on books in common.

Marco Roth, an editor at the magazine n+1, said: “I think sometimes it’s better if books are just books. It’s part of the romantic tragedy of our age that our partners must be seen as compatible on every level.”

In point, one of Donadio’s literary interviewees has a partner who doesn’t read at all: “When she wants to talk about books, she goes to her book group.”

I’m just happy he reads. In fact, he probably spends more time reading than I do. Our sons hardly read at all, which makes me feel guilty (I just couldn’t read The Cat in the Hat for the 400th time) and I’m finding that a lot of their generation doesn’t read, either. It takes too much of their time.

What I’m reading now: It’s a toss-up between an early Denise Mina crime novel and The Madwoman in the Attic, a critical examination of 18th century woman writers (for my Jane Austen Book Club). I frequently read two books at once.

What gets read at your house?

Latino poet Jack Agüeros has Alzheimer’s

March 20, 2008

reserve a place for me in heaven on a cloud
with Indians, Blacks, Jews, Irish, Italians,
Portuguese, and lots of Asians and Arabs, and Hispanics.

I don’t mind if they play
their music too loudly,
or if they leave their windows open –
I like the smell of ethnic foods.
But Lord,
if heaven isn’t integrated,
and if any Angels are racists,
I swear I’m going to be a no-show
because, Lord,
I have already seen hell.

and this:

on 8th Street
between 6th Avenue and Broadway
there are enough shoe stores
with enough shoes
to make me wonder
why there are shoeless people
on the earth.

You have to fire the Angel
in charge of distribution.

– “Psalm for Open Clouds and Windows” and “Psalm For Distribution” from Jack Agüeros, “Lord, Is This a Psalm?” (Via.)