July 16, 2011, 11:44 am
I’m on the third floor porch of the Hagen Wensley guesthouse at the Chautauqua Institution. I’m sitting at a white wicker desk, on a white wicker chair (and on two brightly colored pillows, because the chair is old-fashioned and low-slung), and overlooking the lake. The guest house is where the invited speakers have the pleasure of staying while we’re on the property.
Conversations on the porch at 5 p.m. are famous for their range and depth; last night we had wine and cheese with men who used to run the CIA, a person who had just lectured on torture, and a woman who explained why artists no longer think of nature as something to worshipped. Joining the conversation was somebody who taught history at Johns Hopkin and two sisters, one from Connecticut and one from Pennsylvania, who meet up in Chautauqua every year. We also talked about the fact that the guys who ran the CIA thought Gene…
July 10, 2011, 12:21 pm
I’m writing the introduction to the Signet edition of Little Women and having a far better time than I ever could have imagined. I’m now reading everything Alcott; I’ve joined the cult. I’ve even gone so far as to buy first editions of a number of her less-coveted works, just so I could handle them as I please, leaving them propped open behind a coffee cup on the kitchen table as I eat breakfast.
As a late-in-life convert to Louisa May Alcott, having met Little Women only in my own middle-age, I once again find myself grateful for the fact that I’ve encountered many so-called “children’s books” as an adult.
I didn’t meet Tom Sawyer or David Copperfield until I went to college; I didn’t open Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre until I went to graduate school; I didn’t read Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz until I knew I had to write about them for…
July 1, 2011, 11:54 am
(Photo by Jim Epler)
Tom Bartlett’s recent piece asked a question that Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten and I addressed in our book I’m With Stupid: One Man, One Woman, and 10,ooo of Misunderstanding Between the Sexes Cleared Right Up.
A number of readers probably know Weingarten’s impressive journalism: he’s gone on to win two Pulitzer Prizes since we wrote our book together.
(This also explains why the book I published after I’m With Stupid was titled It’s Not That I’m Bitter.)
Anyway, in Stupid, we have chapter titled “Men and Women are Funny. Just Not to Each Other.” Here’s a section highlighting our mingled, but never combined, perspectives on the subject of what I’d call the manifestly superior maturity and complexity of women’s humor:
Gene: “Maturity” is a code…
June 17, 2011, 10:58 am
Matthew, attorney, musician, bon vivant, and stepson, gave me my first iPod three years ago. He loaded it up with stuff he knew I’d love—music (REM, Dylan, Parton, Piaf, and songs from South Park) and comedy (Carlin, Tenuta, Liebman, Williams, and scenes from “The Producers”).
“What are you listening to now?” Matthew asked me when he and his wife were up from Greenpoint a couple of weekends ago. “Um, it’s what you gave me. I’m listening to what you gave me.” Matthew and Rebecca exchanged glances, looks infused with sincere pity and what I regarded as affectionate wistfulness—sort of the way you’d look at a dog with a limp.
“You can choose to hear other songs, you know,” said Bekka in her charming northern British accent, speaking slowly as if talking to a very young and rather dim child.
It’s true that after three years I can now recite the comedy routines—and pause at…
June 14, 2011, 10:06 pm
I’m reading Nina Baym’s new book Women Writers of the American West, 1833-1927, just published by the University of Illinois Press, and having a rollicking, swaggering, yee-hawing good time.
Almost every one of the novels, narratives, poems, and stories Baym discusses is new to me, and I bet I’m not the only one who’ll find an excellent and generous guide in Baym. (I don’t travel in American literature circles all that often, but I suspect that even many who can go to the frontier without map will be in new territory.) She makes it worth the trip.
If you study American literature, you have to get the book; if you are interested in women’s writing, you must get the book; if you are intrigued by the period of history during which America’s “manifest destiny” became emblazoned across the map even as the country itself was torn apart by civil war, you…
May 23, 2011, 1:15 pm
I haven’t been writing enough.
There are always excuses not to write and, on occasion, there are also reasons.
Here are mine: The end of the semester hit me hard this year; I’ve had non-writerly obligations to fulfill; I’ve been coping with the behind-schedule manuscript/uncorrected-proof stage of my next book; I’ve been napping.
When I’m not writing, I get cranky. The better part of myself becomes eclipsed by the creepy stalker side. I start reading what other people write, not to learn what they’re thinking or to get their perspective on an issue or topic, but to torture myself. “I could have said that,” I pout. “And he thinks this is original?” I sneer. “Whine, whine, whine,” I chuckle, falsely cheerful, “At least I didn’t write this.” Because really, I am hissingly envious of those who are cranking out the stuff.
And, of course, I start to use terms such as “crank out…
May 17, 2011, 11:20 am
You read Prof. Jackson’s post, right? About the world ending this weekend?
I always pay lots of attention when my colleagues at Brainstorm tell me stuff. Well, some of them, anyway. Let’s just say that, as a smart person, I pay lots of attention to Jackson and, as a Recovering Catholic, I pay lots of attention to threats of an apocalyptic nature.
My immediate response, as you might imagine, was to pitch a story to Another Publication about what books we should all read—and which ones we should avoid—if indeed the world is going to end on Saturday.
I asked a few friends and posted a request for suggestions on Facebook. The answers have been fascinating—and they have, even more impressively perhaps—been legion.
The trouble, of course, is that I can’t really use the serious and thoughtful responses my friends have provided, but I am fascinating by them and want more. I…
March 23, 2011, 10:33 am
Taylor during filming of "Jane Eyre"
Forget National Velvet; forget Cleopatra.
For me, Elizabeth Taylor, whose death yesterday was just announced in the New York Times this morning, will always be Helen Burns from the 1943 version of Jane Eyre, a role for which she received no screen credit.
She’s the tiny, sickly orphaned waif whom Jane Eyre befriends when they are at Lowood, the miserable school where poor, sweet-natured Helen Burns, who at least believes she is going to heaven when she dies, nevertheless knows enough about the world to warn Jane that she has too much faith in the love of human beings.
I watched that movie—adapted from Bronte’s novel by John Houseman, Aldous Huxley, Henry Koster, and Robert Stevenson—every 15 minutes as I was growing up. It was part of the “Million Dollar …
March 16, 2011, 10:08 am
No! No, Tess! Don't eat that!
Today we’re lucky enough to be interviewing the three lucky—or are they? –young women who will be appearing in the next season of MTV’s wildly successful program Teen Mom. After all, the show’s second season finale was watched by more than 5.5 million viewers and its cast members appear on the covers of glossy as well as tabloid magazines on a regular basis. Rumors suggest that a whole generation of junior-high and high-school students are attempting pregnancy in order to “star” in the program and because they regard the young women, and some of the young men, who appear on the weekly program as role models.
At least that’s the excuse they give their parents when caught after the lights are turned on in the finished-basement. “I was just preparing my…
March 8, 2011, 2:50 pm
Right now Charlie Sheen is the national Rorschach Test: Whether you’re staring in fascination for long periods of time or just catching a glimpse every now and then, you can learn something about yourself from your response.
In case you’ve been in the basement with your head in a book or a pillowcase for the last couple of days, here’s a recent version of the Sheen experience so that you can assess your own CSR (Charlie Sheen Rorschach).
What I just learned is this: Charlie Sheen wrote a book of poetry in 1990 and today, on Amazon, a used hardcover of that volume—titled “A Peace of My Mind—Poetry by Charles Sheen”—is selling for $5,000. The used paperback is selling for $1,250.
You know, I almost feel bad about making fun of Bristol Palin’s memoir.
The idea that somebody would pay 5k for a copy—just a copy—of Charlie Sheen’s self-published poetry makes…
February 14, 2011, 10:05 pm
I’m teaching Woolf’s Orlando tonight. It’s a riotously funny book …
(If you’re the kind of person who hates hearing about the conclusion of a novel you haven’t yet read, please stop reading here.)
… And it has a happy ending. That’s something you don’t get from every available text in Mod Brit Lit unless your definition of “happy” includes suicide, enucleation, apocalypse, death by vehicular manslaughter and / or alcohol-induced frenzy.
I look forward to teaching Orlando because it’s playful, snarky, sexy, and because it’s full of fabulous passages, such as this one, which takes place right after Orlando changes from a man to a woman:
“Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity. Their faces remained, as their portraits prove, practically the same. His me…
January 31, 2011, 11:57 am
I need your help, dear readers, in planning my course for next year. I’m doing my “Femmes Fatale” class and I need some new titles for my reading list.
Not all the women need to killers, but they all need to slay me.
I’ve only been able to come up with 25. That’s ridiculous. I’d like to know other titles you believe should be on the list and why.
Here are the books I’m choosing from (in no particular order, by the way, so don’t get excited) and I know there should be more—so please help me out.
Austen’s Lady Susan
Bronte’s Wuthering Heights
Thackeray’s Vanity Fair
Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Weldon’s Life and Loves of a She-Devil
Atwood’s The Robber Bride and/or Alias Grace
Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind
Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Defoe’s Moll Flanders
Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd…
January 21, 2011, 9:22 am
What do you need in order to write?
Let’s say it better, make it more precise and accurate, make it a Real Question: What do you tell yourself you need in order to write?
Silence? Time? A contract? Two course reductions? An assistant? A grant from the NEA?
Because, folks—let’s not kid ourselves—all you really need in order to write is a scrap of paper and a pencil nub. You don’t need 500 pounds sterling or a room of one’s one (pace Virgina Woolf); you don’t need passionate kisses (pace Mary Chapin Carpenter); and you certainly don’t need an M.F.A. (pace expensive programs around the country).
You don’t need to drink, although you might need to get sober; you don’t need to torture yourself, although you might need to stop long enough to put a few words together that can withstand your inner critic and remain on the page; you don’t need to have friends in the…
January 4, 2011, 2:31 am
By my count of positions discussed on the essential Academic Jobs Wiki: Seven of forty-three positions in French with “interviews scheduled” were interviewing by Skype and bypassing the MLA convention in Los Angeles this week. (More fools them: The rains are ending and the forecast is lovely.) Five of the seven were tenure track positions. In German three of 27 tenure track and three of 18 nontenurable positions are bypassing MLA. Traditional English literature fields aren’t Skyping much as yet (just one or two in most fields), but among writing specialists at least seven tenure-track jobs of the 150 or so discussed are bypassing MLA.
Given that most MLA cities aren’t as desirable in early January as Los Angeles (Toronto, you know I’m talking about you!), will the cost savings of $5,000 to $10,000 per search lead to more Skyping and less flying of three to seven socially deficient…
January 2, 2011, 12:59 pm
Alex Kaplan, you teach high-school English? You are a hero.
I could never do your job. I’m serious: I student-taught for exactly one semester when I was in college. It devastated me. It absolutely wore me out. It was the only time in my entire life I ever missed a meal — how’s that for proof? (The proof is in missing the pudding.)
I would return from my stint at a local high school and collapse in my dorm room, too exhausted to drag myself to the dining hall. This had never happened under any other circumstances. I was known as a person who could pull an all-nighter and still make it to breakfast; I was famous for showing up after a 14-hour road trip with five carefully calculated minutes to spare on the dinner hour.
Yet after working with 14-to-18-year-olds for six hours a day, I would enter such a deep state of unconsciousness that not even the promise of mac and cheese could…
December 21, 2010, 8:14 pm
I made a brave attempt, this afternoon, to place the work of the semester into folders, a gesture that was part of an even braver attempt to place the work of the term behind me.
I always have to do this in order to begin (or, more properly, finish) other projects. It’s a ritual. It’s what I do to mark the end of my classes. As usual, I’d taught two courses and continued to co-edit the journal LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory.
In addition, and as usual, I also directed three independent studies.
Basically these are tutorials, a practice I shoplifted from my days in the U.K.. They’re a lot of work, yet I do them because they inspire me. I get no additional money or course-reductions or time off for good behavior. But I get a kick out of sitting down with these students, almost all of whom I’ve personally invited to work with me, and getting to know them—and their…
December 6, 2010, 12:22 am
Riding on the train,
I look past my reflection to the landscape.
I see abandoned tenements
and I want to be a bulldozer.
I see acres of scrap metal and
I want to be a crusher.
They call themselves
Where do companies find their names,
the men who deal with what we refuse?
From the God Of Unlikely Nomenclature?
Further west there are farms;
further east there are mansions.
But here there is only life on the brink:
a nest in a brick wall.
Photo by Flickr user jesus_leon