A Beach Read…

…if you like beaches with gray sand, lots of rocks, broken bottles, used condoms, hurricane-whipped waves, and rain.

I prefer picture postcard beaches  myself, but since I’m far from a beach, and this spring (summer is not until Monday, right?) has been what I’m calling “the grayest, coldest, wettest spring since I’ve lived in this town” (now 15 years), this book has been the perfect read for sitting on the sofa under a blanket,  wearing winter lounge wear (sweats), and cursing the weather while drinking lots of spiked tea.

Give it a chance: it’s one of those novels that has to gel, and when it does, wow. Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon.

But warning: this is NOT a light and uplifting read (not that I consider this  a bad thing).  It’s a novel about depressed people. Serious depressed. It’s a novel about identity theft that goes way beyond someone digging through your garbage for your credit card number. It’s a novel about obsession (not love obsession, naturally, because these characters are too messed up to ever fall in love).  It’s a novel that someone (like M. Night Shyamalan, or the Coen brothers, or recent Scorsese)  will want to make into a movie–for the ending alone.

The NYTimes compared the paranoid moments in the novel to those of the masterpiece of paranoia,  DeLillo’s White Noise. But unlike in DeLillo’s work, there are few humorous interludes.  Stephen King could have written it, but there are no clowns or dead children (ok, there are dead children but only off stage).

It’s a thriller, with some gore, but not that much. There are three pairs of characters who ultimately converge and it’s in that convergence where the gelling happens:

There is a high school history teacher and his student. A father and son. And twins. You gotta have twins in a thriller.

It’s not a beach read, but read it anyway.

I’m also still reading The Lonely Polygamist by Brian Udall.   The opening was so promising: father of 28, husband of 4 wives, comes home from a long drive and really, really has to pee. But, naturally, all the bathrooms in his big house are being used. Eventually, he finds his way into a storage closet with a bucket. Fun stuff. But now, it’s getting sluggish.  One of his sons has befriended what could only be an odd duck, though polite,  with a fondness for bombs.

Last summer, I read a slew of novels about middle aging males making it the summer of Andropause or Aging Lotharios.  This summer is turning out to be closer to the Summer of the Almost Apocalyptic Novel. Not quite, apocalyptic, since the end of the world characters are in the background rather than the foreground. But they are there.

Obviously, unless I wake up Monday and summer weather is finally here, I need some light and uplifting novel recommendations: any suggestions?

Amazon.com 2006 edition

The latest meme going around, according to Profgrrrl,  who knows all, is to identify your earliest Amazon purchases.

Looks like I started a new account in 2006, because that’s as far back as my history goes.  (Perhaps before then I was dutifully going to the local independent bookstore in town, which closed in 2006, and though another has replaced it, I have obviously made much use of Amazon–and BN and Powells–since then).

My 2006 purchases included:

So what can we conclude about Annie’s reading in 2006? Well, clearly, as chair, she had murder, travel, pain and the apocalypse on the brain (I’ve decided that Little Women must have been for someone else since I own 3 versions of the novel, not one of them the tiny print, mass market kind).  Let that be a warning to her the next time she agrees to be chair.

Post Procedure Post

Well, it’s not exactly an operation—the various medical personnel refer to it as a procedure or an examination. But, the “sedation specialist” (that’s how she introduced herself—wouldn’t you just love that title on your business card?) hooked me up to an IV and oxygen, and put patches on my chest to watch my heart: it’s definitely more complex than a routine “examination”.

Coincidentally, I’ve been reading a book I discovered at our local and homey used bookstore, Gail Godwin’s 1994 novel The Good Husband. It’s some sort of riff on, among other literary works, Ford’s The Good Soldier—a novel I’ve now dug up to reread when I’m done with this one.  It’s a bit wordy and dense, but very readable.  Dr. Madga Danvers, famous for the pre-thesis-defense publication of her thesis (and only published book, even 24 years afterwards, The Book of Hell: An Introduction to the Visionary Mode–a) marries Francis Lake, a younger (by 13 years) seminary student. He dedicates his life for caring for her as a house husband (and, from what it sounds like, quite the sexy boy toy, as well as an excellent cook and decorator).  In the present, Magda is slowly dying of ovarian cancer, while Francis cares for her, and her colleagues raise money to create a “Chair of Visionary Studies” position/program in her honor. Meanwhile, temporary writer in residence, Hugo Henry (author of 8 novels—sounds sort of like a Pat Conroy/Prince of Tides Southern writer) and his wife, Alice, have recently given birth to a child who died choking on the cord, which of course is affecting their marriage and Hugo’s creative energies.  While Hugo travels giving visiting lectures across the country, Alice spends her days visiting Magda and Francis, who presumably have the “good marriage” that Alice is seeking.

Anyway, the connection to my “examination”:  Magda calls her last few months of living her “final examination”—in her less lucid moments, demanding that Francis bring her at least 3 blue exam books. The novel (so far, I’m only ½ finished) has these wonderful (but too brief) gems of dialogue, including the following discussion between Magda (slowly descending into a morphine induced sleep) and one of her colleagues from the English department (overheard by the more literal minded Francis, who is disturbed by his inability to track Magda’s way of talking/thinking on multiple levels at once):

“Something awful has occurred to me, Tony. What if, however hard you try on your exam, or however stupid or smart you are, everybody gets the same grade in the end?”

“Dear lady, you are truly inspired today. And of course we do, we all do get the same grade, in the sense I think you mean.”

So, I amused myself this morning trying to guess what happens next: Magda dying, of course, and Francis getting it on with Alice, and Hugo finding that he really does miss the Southern bells of his childhood fantasies (if I’d remembered that Ford novel, my guesses might be more accurate, eh?)—all this as a way of NOT thinking about how hungry (by this morning, it had been over 35 hours without food, just liquids) and scared I was about the whole procedure considering its purpose was not preventative or routine but diagnostic.

My hubby was the perfect Francis about the whole thing: egging me on to drink the 64 oz of medicated Gatorade last night in the required 2 hours, and then dressing me after the procedure while I was, from his own understated description, flying high on what had to be quite awesome drugs. And finally staying home for most of the day observing me as I slept, and making me peanut butter and honey on white toast when I awoke (it’s now my all time favorite food).  The good husband, indeed.

Besides the “sedation specialist” and the mental image I have of myself walking around naked, babbling and grinning wildly while poor hubby tries to dress me, there really isn’t any humor about the whole thing, but there is some wonderful news that of course I only heard after I woke up 3 hours later: all looked fine, no problems, and no repeat of the damned procedure for 10 years.  Of course I have to wait 24 hours before I can open that celebratory bottle of wine (or sign any legal documents, or drive a car–nothing in the documents I signed preventing me from blogging, however), but a cool glass of ginger ale and my good husband await me.

What I Know Now

pink_imnotdeadA colleague and friend invited me to see a play a few weeks ago: we had seen Menopause: The Musical together this summer, so we’re sort of play-going buddies (and kayaking buddies, though since I broke one of her bungee cords last summer she may reconsider that–don’t ask me HOW I broke such a thing): not to mention that once classes begin, we rarely get to see each other and this was one of those rare work-light weekends. 

We went to a community playhouse that was putting on a reading/performance to benefit our women’s resource center.  Five local actresses sat comfortably on cozy sofas, while taking turns reading, and performing, letters written by older women (aged 21-60+) to their younger (aged 4-40) selves. 

The reading/performance was based on Ellyn Spragins’ edited collection of letters, What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self, written by 40 famous women, including Maya Angelou, Ann Curry, Olympia Dukakis, Naomi Wolf, etc.  The local actresses read a few of the published essays beautifully, but the most emotionally powerful letters were those written by the actresses themselves and those by some of the audience members—women who participated in a letter writing workshop.

The theatre is cozy, and serves wine, so we, the audience, too, settled in as if in someone’s living room.  Of the 50 or so attendees, only 2 were men, and the women were generally in their 30s-60s.

As the director noted in her post-performance chat with us, she tried to select letters that covered a range of ages and subject, moving from light-hearted (don’t worry my dear 4-year old self: you will pass kindergarten and make friends), to the more serious (I’m sorry my 30 year old self: you will have to suffer from cancer again, but you survive it again, too).  There’s a wonderful song by Pink called “Conversations With My 13-Year-Old-Self”  that  provided, at least in my mind, the soundtrack for this powerful performance.

The letters are all by women, alas: I think it would be fascinating to hear what men would write to their younger selves. I’m curious to know what subjects men would focus on–anyone want to run with that?

Now, I’m not so sure I want to read the book: I suspect there is unevenness, maybe even schmaltziness, to the series of letters.  But, the reading/performance worked for me.

What would I say to my 13 year old self? 

 What comes to mind is just a series of nags:  “Just eat that cookie instead of agonizing over it, and write MORE in that diary with the fake key.”  But also some praise: “How COOL you were to study Latin, to learn to twirl a rifle, and to keep up pen pals from several different continents (obviously, my early blogging tendencies….), and try to write a novel.  You were so incredibly courageous and curious. You’ll lose some of that for a few years while you obsess over boys and sex, but courage and curiosity will come back to you with a vengeance, so be ready for it.”

Kindness, Cookies, and Recent Reads

  • This was sent to me today: A heart-warming holiday sort of story out of Eugene, Oregon (famous for Prefontaine, Bowerman and Phil Knight, as well as Animal House and rain—oh, yes, and Ducks): the Random Acts of Kindness Club is booted out of the mall for being, well, kind.
  • My partner made a batch of Sybil Vane’s pumpkin chocolate chip cookies (you can get the recipe here) and they were delicious.  I highly recommend them!
  • Finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article on teaching and “withitness”–the almost un-teachable quality of a good teacher (and frankly, a good communicator in general): “Most Likely To Succeed”.  Having worked as a mentor with and evaluator of new instructors for the last 15 years, I’ve always struggled to explain this concept to struggling teachers.  “Withitness” is simply the understanding that the students’ learning process is more important than the material itself.  I could live without the football analogy he starts and ends the essay with,  however.  I see this with my students, too: there are certain “triggers”–words or topics–that make some readers shut down before they even get to the meat of an essay (or book).  To me the triggers are sports and obscure political references, clearly because those are weak spots in my knowledge-base, and, as a result of my ignorance,  they simply bore me as topics of interest.  Now, give me a food, popular culture, shopping, literary or sexual allusion and I’m right with you.
  • I also just finished Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves a series of beautifully told, interconnected tales about a community with a painful past.  The link is to Michiko Kakutani’s thoughtful review of the novel.  The effect of reading the novel is incredibly powerful: as I read the novel, the connections between the characters were slowly revealed—and of course those graceful revelations (graceful because I only recognized them in retrospect)  just sucked me in and made for several sleepless nights as I had to keep reading.  This is definitely one of her best works in years.

Why Does Literature Matter?

My Oprah’s Book Club talk last week (discussed here) led to a 3-page conclusion on why her 12-year old book club encourages readers to address the question, why does literature matter?  I quoted Morris Dickstein’s recent essay (also posted here).  I always bring this question up in my literature classes (from introductory to senior seminars) and it almost always leads to wonderful discussions that re-emerge throughout the term and reappear, more thoughtfully, on final exams.  While it’s obvious that this question is one of those enduring ones, during a time when the percentage of people who read literature is falling, we who still believe in its value need to spread the word. Thus ended my talk.

This week’s Chronicle of Higher Education addresses that same question (though they phrase it in as “What Ails Literary Studies?”) in a trio of articles related to the question of why literature matters (and the e-mail newsletter also links to a 10 year old article on the same question). From the Newsletter, here are the links—my comments on each are below:

What Ails Literary Studies

The Joy of the Hoi Polloi

By Rita Felski

The Must-Read Recede

By Steven G. Kellman

The Elite Conceit

By Bruce Fleming

The 10-year old article is described below:


This week three scholars consider the imperiled state of literary studies. But bemoaning the field’s situation is a longstanding specialty of its own. In 1997, for instance, John M. Ellis lamented the discipline’s derangement in Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities. Michael Bérubé wrote a roundabout, cheeky Chronicle rejoinder to the book, and to Frank Kermode’s defense of it in The Atlantic Monthly.


Felski’s article, “The Joy of the Hoi Polloi”, most closely responds to my Why Does Literature Matter question. She argues that instead of trying to defend literature’s usefulness, “what literary studies sorely needs…is a nonutilitarian understanding of use.”   What she calls the “idea of recognition” –when the reader recognizes herself in a character—is affective reading: we need to encourage such a personal response to the literature, to use, as I remember fondly using, that old thesis-template phrasing we used in high school: “in literature as in [my] life”.  Felski even echoes the same metaphor I used in my talk (though she doesn’t apply it to Oprah): that literature professors need to build a bridge between theory and what she calls “common sense”—basically, non-academic reading.  I thoroughly enjoyed seeing some of the ideas I’ve been grappling with so eloquently and succinctly discussed in this essay.


Kellman’s essay,  “The Must-Read Recede”, examines another  idea I discussed in my talk last week: how reading the canon has been “sold” as a way for those without a college degree to become “middle class”—from Charles W. Eliot, the president of Harvard, to the Book of the Month Club to Mortimer Adler’s Great Books—all were appeals to the American need to continuous self improvement.  While he doesn’t mention Oprah’s Book Club (or the Book of the Month Club, actually) both aspire(d) to the same goal, just from a less lofty platform: Preaching the Gospel of Reading!


Fleming’s article, “The Elite Conceit”, beautifully dovetails with what I was trying to do in the Oprah talk—remind my colleagues why they went into literary studies to begin with and that when we deny students the opportunity to respond personally and passionately to the literary works, we are denying them the opportunity to fall in love, as we did. Fleming argues that literature professors are “killing that experience with the discipline of literary studies”: by focusing on theoretical approaches before personal connection to the literature, we’ve “made ourselves into a priestly caste.” Indirectly, he argues against survey classes in a singularly humorous line: “nowadays we teach literature as if we were giving a tour of a grocery store to Martians who’ve just touched down on Earth.”  [I must admit to actually having a final exam question to that affect.] His argument is beautifully illustrated in a Richard Russo’s short story “The Horseman” (from The Atlantic Monthly’s August 2006 issue)—just read it since my summary would not do it justice.


Finally, Michael Bérubé’s  wonderfully caustic (and just laugh-out-loud funny, in a dark humor sort of way) Chronicle article, “Defending Literary Studies Has Become a Lost Cause” [link is only available to subscribers], responds to Kermode’s Atlantic Monthly review of  John M. Ellis’  book, Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities:  


“ I think it’s about time we admitted that things in the academy are much, much worse than either Ellis or Kermode surmises. Over 70 per cent of women’s studies courses, for example, require their students to drink menstrual blood and engage in ritual witchcraft (in that order).”


Ah, brings back such memories of Intro to Women Studies, circa 1981.


Ending on a more serious note, Bérubé urges the current generation of literary critics (1997—oooh, me), to “refresh our culture’s collective memory as to why literature and criticism should matter to human affairs.”   


Ah, Bartleby.

Dr. Johnson’s Sex Life

As a multi-tasker extraordinaire, I’ve been catching up on back issues/websites this week, while grading final essays (which are, mercifully, done).  Here is one article that stands out (more tomorrow):

Adam Gopnik’s review of two new Samuel Johnson biographies (one by Peter Martin; the other by Jeffrey Meyers), “A Critic at Large: Man of Fetters: Dr. Johnson and Mrs. Thrale” is a fun read (especially if getting around to reading the actual biographies just ain’t gonna happen).  As an undergraduate, I had a thing for Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, written by an star-struck 22 year old desperately in need of a father figure—in the 1760s, Johnson was in his 50s and the biography is based on their friendship of 22 years.  Boswell didn’t publish the biography until 1791—it is considered today to represent a key turning point in the history of biography. Instead of a dry recitation of biographical facts, Boswell’s “Life” is full of fun trivia about Johnson, and he maintains a very readable, informal style.  However, Gopnik notes in his review that Boswell didn’t dwell on the details of Johnson’s relationship with Mrs. Thrale, perhaps because of jealousy:

“Still, there was one large topic upon which Boswell cannot be relied. It is Johnson’s relation to Hester Thrale—the woman he lived with, whom he loved, and who wrote the only contemporaneous account that gives a credibly different picture of what the great man was like. Meyers, to his credit, tries to look frankly at the evidence about their peculiar erotic relation. The result is to make Johnson even more of a personality, and less of a pedant; he emerges as a man of passion and pain, given and taken, a professor of desire.”

Perhaps knowing that Dr. Johnson (writer of the influential Dictionary of the English Language, 1755) had an interesting sex life for many years (including a little “s and m” it seems) is irrelevant to understanding his intellectual accomplishments, but let’s be real: we like our smart folks to be human, too.  Maybe Boswell was too jealous (it doesn’t appear that he was delicate) to write about his sex life with Mrs. Thrale, but I’m glad Gopnik and Meyers did. 

Speaking of sex, there have been several articles on the “trend” of  “hooking up”  in the news this year.  It is being debated in the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, Salon.com,, and blogs such as Girl With Pen.  I usually have my first year composition students write about new trends, and I was supposed to get a final essay on this one, but that student flaked out at the last moment. Too bad, I was curious to read her 19-year old take on the trend.

Preaching the Gospel of Reading

Evan Agostini / Getty Images file
Evan Agostini / Getty Images file

I just finished doing a run through of my presentation on Oprah’s Book Club that I’ve titled “Preaching the Gospel of Reading” (not exactly an original title considering all the essays on OBC that use variations on that title), practicing for the Wednesday morning presentation.  I finally found a clear, and I hope, engaging focus, connecting my interest in Oprah’s Book Club with the question of Why Literature STILL Matters.  And while my significant other, who patiently listened to me practice, praised my delivery and gave me only a few excellent suggestions at tightening up some sections, I’m sure he is a little biased.  I’m nervous as hell: why is it that the thought of speaking to my colleagues (and remember it’s early in the morning, so my very under-caffeinated colleagues) makes me sweat tears?

Anyway, I need another day to focus on my presentation (and, at the same time, somehow grade final research papers) but I’m looking forward to distilling some of those ideas here for feedback. 
In the meantime, I’ve gotten several requests from students in my literature class (Books That Cook!) this term for reading lists so that they can continue reading fiction over winter break. First, let me say how much that pleases me, but second, I just love such requests. I’ve been mulling over what sort of list to create for this particular class: one that continues with the theme of food fiction and women writers, but also takes them further.   Don’t worry: I’ll be posting that list here, too, someday soon.

Books That Cook! My First Food Fiction Course

One of my favorite blogs, Bitch, Ph.D., posts recipes once in a while, and the most recent recipe posting included one for what looks to be a delicious pumpkin cookie: I can’t wait to try making them, though my baking/cooking skills are, not to be too humble, uneven.  Ms. Sybil noted in her posting that she should just start a food blog, and the cheers of support keep pouring in (for the most part).  That idea (a food blog, for those who cook, for those who eat, for those who like to read about food) got me reflecting (finally, in that time I allow for myself each morning when I go running–so that I can eat lots of pumpkin cookies) on the food fiction course I’m teaching this term for the first time.

Last spring I read an article in College English (70.4) titled “Books That Cook: Teaching Food and Food Literature in the English Classroom” by Jennifer Cognard-Black and Melissa A. Goldthwaite (the entire March 2008 issue is on food, fyi).   Since I was teaching a generically titled Introduction to Women Writers course this fall, I decided to try out some of their ideas by focusing on “food fiction” by women writers.  I ended up (after much anguish—I struggle with this choice whenever I teach a literature course) with the following reading list:

·         Isak Dinesen’s “Babette’s Feast”

·         Laura Esquivel’s Like Water For Chocolate

·         Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

·         Diana Abu Jaber’s Crescent

Other books I considered but couldn’t “fit in” to our quarter system include:

·         Joanne Harris’ Chocolat (much better than the film version)

·         Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes At the Whistle Stop Café

·         Chitra Divakaruni’s Mistress of Spices

·         Diane Hammond’s Going to Bend

Several students chose one of the latter books as the focus of their final project, so I’m curious to read and hear about their responses to these selections. 

As it turns out, the novels worked well together, sharing many of the same themes (including elements of magical realism; fairy tale allusions; and, naturally, the use of food as a central metaphor).   And because we focused on contemporary women’s fiction–fiction that is not “canonical”–there were some engaging discussions of some of the issues (high vs. “middlebrow” literature and approaches to reading literature, for example) that I’m thinking/writing about for my Oprah’s Book Club talk next week.

I decided to focus on fiction, but I know there are many, many food memoirs out there, too.  And, of course, I limited the selection to women writers, but someday I can see a separate food memoir course where I could include one of my favorites, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.   

Please share any other ideas you have:  the course (now almost finished) was a joy to prepare and teach, and I’ll be asking students for feedback, too.  I’ll post more on the course after the term is over.

What a Long Strange Trip It Is

Well, since I finished reading most of the research paper drafts (see post below), I did some errands and surfed through my blogroll for a bit to catch up.  I must tell you about the following article I discovered:

It’s an article that, serendipitously, relates to a project I’m working on, and, at the same time, affects me more emotionally. A recent issue of Columbia Magazine published this thoughtful piece on why literature still matters. Morris Dickstein’s essay “The Undying Animal” is a mediation on why those who work with literature “love what we do.”  I simply must quote the first paragraph so you can hear his voice and his passion:

Caught up in the rush of our ongoing lives, we rarely get the chance to step back and reflect on why we do what we do or, more important, why we love what we do. Working with literature as scholars, editors, and critics can become as habitual as any other form of work. Our criticism grows procedural or theoretical, betraying the spirit of the writers we admire. Slipping out of routine into reflection is part of the discipline of literature itself, which pares away the casual and the incidental, the merely lifelike. Instead it concentrates impressions, ideas, and feelings into language that yields meaning. The poem is the poet’s way of suspending time and attending to the minute vibrations of the inner and outer world. The demands it makes on us as readers are personal, not professional, or personal before they are professional. At a time when literary study is on the defensive, even in universities that once nurtured it, we need to raise the question why literature matters, hoping this will illuminate why the collective work of an organization of writers and scholars matters as well.

The essay concludes by reminding us that we love literature because “it disquiets us, throws us off balance, unsettles our easy assumptions”–an idea that echoes so deeply within me but that is so challenging, for me, to explain in a classroom to students who see literature’s purpose as ultimately confirming their worldview.  Dickstein’s essay reminds me of Azar Nafasi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, her (not uncontroversial) memoir about the years she spent teaching American literature in Iran, where she, too, tries to explain that great literature is subversive:     

I explained that most great works of the imagination were meant to make you feel like a stranger in your own home. The best fiction always forced us to question what we took for granted. It questioned tradition and expectations when they seemed immutable. I told them I wanted them in their readings to consider in what ways these works unsettled them, made them feel uneasy, made them look around and consider the world, like Alice in Wonderland, through different eyes. (94)

Alice may have been confused and perhaps a little frightened, but oh, what a long, strange trip she had!