Summer: such a blur. Here’s the most recent set of Hot Reads! If you read just one of these books, let it be Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls. It was hard to do it justice in less than 300 words.
With more than 100 world-class writers in dozens events spanning a week, this year’s PEN World Voices Festival line-up is pretty daunting. I did manage to carve out time to make it out for a few things– and I blogged about an event earlier this week for Words Without Borders. The topic was “The Critic’s Global Voice,” and the panel featured Jean-Euphèle Milcé, Ursula Krechel, and Mikhail Shishkin (with Bookforum editor Albert Mobilio moderating):
Reports of the death of American literary culture have been, well, at least a little exaggerated. There’s no other way to explain the steady stream of lively essays bemoaning the health of book reviews, book critics, and literature itself. “Like hazing, reviewing is inflicted by the old and popular on the young and weak,” Elizabeth Gumport wrote, dismissing the genre in n+1. Literary culture is in the midst of a “long slide, reflecting not just a hard market but the manners of a bygone world,” as Michael Wolff recently put it in a churlish column predicting the demise of the New York Times Book Review. At any rate, “most contemporary literary fiction is terrible,” J. Robert Lennon griped in Salon.
But what of the rest of the world? Are we to believe that such assessments hold true for the public dialogue about books—and the role of “professional” readers—in other languages, other markets, other cultures? Bookforum editor Albert Mobilio put the question of the role of criticism to writers from Russia (Mikhail Shishkin), Haiti (Jean-Euphèle Milcé), and Germany (Ursula Krechel) in a Wednesday night PEN festival discussion of “The Critic’s Global Voice.”
This week’s Hot Reads feature a pink hotel, a red planet, a bright abyss, and a giant burning triangle. Also, men in very short shorts. Splendid books all around. Visit The Daily Beast for the full reviews.
In fifth grade, four of my classmates and I tested out of elementary school math. Instead of one more year of long division, every day during recess we marched ourselves across the muddy field separating the elementary and middle school and entered a strange land of lockers, period bells, puberty, and pre-algebra.
One day, while sitting in the back of Mrs. Lambiotte’s classroom (the back of the room, I discovered, was the best place for witnessing the novel hormonal mayhem of a seventh grade classroom — and also for finding the kinds of students who didn’t mind talking to a 10-year-old), I chewed a little too hard on my red pen. A bitter taste erupted in my mouth; within moments, my jaw was covered in red ink. I fled to the bathroom.
This is a story that could’ve easily ended in tears and a lifelong loathing of math. Instead, after some quality time with the faucet, I skulked back to Mrs. Lambiotte’s class, where after a mild ribbing, my spectacle was forgotten as my classmates got back to business of being twelve and thirteen-year-olds — trading moony glances, tightly folded notes, spitballs, and the like.
I lucked out that day. But when I think about how scary school — and math in particular — has a potential to be, I think about the flash of terror that descended when I realized that I’d eaten open my pen, underscoring my presence as the classroom freak for once and for all in a burst of bright red ink across my face.
Everything that’s awkward about school is multiplied in the math classroom. That’s why I was particularly excited to explore the topic of “math anxiety” last week — through an interview with Dr. Rose Vukovic, professor of teaching and learning at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and in a visit to MoMath, the National Museum of Mathematics in Manhattan. Listen to the piece that resulted here.
The book that really got to me from this week’s Daily Beast/Newsweek Hot Reads was She Matters. It’s a memoir of an unusual variety. It’s also a real heart-breaker. Every woman has befriended (or been) a Susanna somewhere along the way.
The more things change, the more the stay the same. At least that’s the feeling I’ve been getting reading through some of John Kennedy Toole’s fifty-plus-year-old writings in Butterfly in the Typewriter, a new biography of the writer that recently landed on my desk.
Entertainingly, many of Toole’s observations on New York still seem fresh all these years later. For example, Toole describes — with a certain grim glee — “the masochism of living in New York, which has become the Inferno of America” (that is to say, it typifies “the American Dream as Apocalypse”). But I was especially struck by this response to an exam question Toole wrote in 1955:
Our government tells us we are equal, even though we enjoy economic freedom. There are, of course, many citizens who believe wholeheartedly that this is true. It is taught to all school children as the catechism of our government, as dogma.
But when these children are faced with the stark reality that school is over, that they are no longer “actives” in their fraternity, that they have their degree in Business Administration and that the regular checks from home are no longer forthcoming, the dogma which they so firmly believed explodes in their faces.
I was immediately reminded of a recent college graduate who joined The Takeaway a few months ago. “We also were told a narrative our whole lives that if we did well in school and attended college, you know, there’d be good middle class jobs waiting for us,” Chris Galloway said. As he explained on the show, when Chris finished his degree and found himself jobless — and tens of thousands of dollars in debt — his perspective changed dramatically.
One could argue that the factors Toole observed exploding “the catechism of our government” half a century ago were in many ways different from the factors Galloway and other young graduates experience today. But the tension between that “dogma” and the reality — the tension between a promising young graduate’s expectations, aspirations, and prospects — seems pretty much the same.
(For more on Toole, check out Cory McLachlan’s wonderful essay in The Millions about the process of researching Butterfly in the Typewriter).
Making the rounds this week is a wonderful Los Angeles Review of Books essay about the time a young writer named Joan Williams asked William Faulkner for a blurb for her book. Glen David Gold’s line-read of Faulkner’s grizzly reply touches on many things that interest me, like the life of Faulkner (especially, his UVa writer-in-residence years), the highlights and low-lights of literary friendships and favors, the fine art of blurb-making and ellipses insertion (a craft I learned many years ago as an intern in Granta’s offices), the horror of transactional relationships, the lost art of letter-writing, and (spoiler alert!) what happens when an older, famous writer strikes up a relationship with a young, unestablished one.
Some years ago, a prize-winning writer who you probably have heard of emailed me. I was in the middle of an onerous task at a corporate job I wasn’t suited for when the message flashed across my screen. “Please forgive the intrusion,” it began. I almost fell out of my chair. This writer — who had been assigned reading for me in college a few years before — called my writing “smart” and “interesting.” He wanted to know what else I was working on.
What followed was not my ticket to fame or the start of a steamy affair (either which would have made a much better story than the one I’m telling now). To my regret, it was not the start of a lasting literary friendship, either. We exchanged emails — some earnest, some chatty (his were filled with profanities) — about life and writing, and the writing life, while I got started on a freelance assignment he’d set up for me. We planned to meet for coffee but he was traveling extensively, and anyway, I didn’t want to meet until I had made some headway on the freelance assignment — or had other “smart” and “interesting” work to show him.
We never did get coffee. I happened to be visiting my parents in Virginia during the short window he was in New York, but the real problem was that I wasn’t sure if I was exactly who the famous writer hoped I was. I had just finished graduate school, where I had read things, and developed ideas (a “promiscuous mind” full of them, as the only graduate school professor to give me less than an A put it) but I wasn’t sure, exactly, what it was I was supposed to be writing about — or doing, for that matter — next. For lack of any better plan, I threw myself into my full-time job and the busy social life of a single girl living in downtown Manhattan. I hoped things would make more sense eventually. When they did, maybe I would write about it.
In the meantime, my pen pal’s emails were getting ever-so-slightly more familiar and affectionate — nothing untoward, but there was a shift in tone. I studied his words with even more scrutiny than I’d given them in college. I read parts of his messages to my older brother on the phone. “Sly dog,” my brother said. I started flinching every time I saw the famous writer’s byline. Writers: They’re just like us (this was a concept I mastered when I was an intern at Us Weekly). They Google strangers. They don’t know what they’re looking for. They don’t know what they mean. Our correspondence tapered off.
A few more years have gone by and to my surprise and relief, things do make more sense, as I’d hoped they would. I’m happy with my new, different job, my boyfriend and my outer-borough life. And the writing? It’s coming along — slowly. I’m finding my footing. Maybe I should be in more of a hurry, but I’m not. “How much of a balancing act to determine your real value to another person,” Gold writes. Let me add: Or indeed, to yourself.
For a little more than a year now, I’ve been working the early early shift. Most days, I leave my apartment at 3 a.m. to be at my desk by 3:30 a.m. At least once a week, I’m in an hour before that. “I don’t know how you do it,” people tell me. When I think about the fact that the Dalai Lama typically wakes up at least 45 minutes later than I do, I don’t know either.
But secretly, I’ve come to really enjoy the shift. I like slipping out of my apartment building before anyone is awake to greet Carlos, the calm and collected driver who works for the car service contracted by my office. As he drives his Benz (yes, I ride a Benz to work!) through the deserted streets, we complain about how tired we are. We talk about politics, money, Moammar Gadhafi, the weather, and our weekends as I scan the latest headlines on my phone. Sipping my tea and looking out at the Manhattan skyline, I brace myself for the day ahead.
Most days, my shift goes quickly. A deadline every half-hour keeps me on my toes. After the show ends, I stumble out into the sunshine, the day entirely open to me. Sometimes I go to a coffee shop and read. Sometimes I sit in the park. Sometimes I meet underemployed friends for dawdling, decadent lunches. Sometimes I go for a run along the West Side Highway, or to an early afternoon yoga class. There’s hardly anyone at the gym when I get there, and while the lunch rush swells in and out, I take my time.
I take naps. I stay up too late. I fall asleep on the subway on my way home from work every single day. I’ve learned to loop my purse around my arms as soon as I sit down so that once I’m asleep it’s not a temptation for anyone else riding a mid-afternoon Queens-bound train. Once in a while, I oversleep and miss my stop. I walk the extra avenues home in the bright mid-morning light cursing myself.
Strangely, I haven’t overslept my shift once.
A few weeks after I started this job, my coworker Sitara emailed out a poem called “Four a.m.” by Wislawa Szymborska. It remains tacked up to the wall of my work-station:
The hour between night and day.
The hour between toss and turn.
The hour of thirty-year-olds.
The hour swept clean for rooster’s crowing.
The hour when the earth takes back its warm embrace.
The hour of cool drafts from extinguished stars.
The hour of do-we-vanish-too-without-a-trace.
Rock bottom of all the other hours. No one feels fine at four a.m.
If ants feel fine at four a.m.,
we’re happy for the ants. And let five a.m. come
if we’ve got to go on living.
I won’t dispute it: 4 a.m. is the rock-bottom hour. But I’ve grown to savor the luxury of the many other free hours my work schedule affords. Once work is out of the way, the entire day is mine, and there are always more than enough ways to spend it. After next week, I start a new shift. I’ll be saying goodbye to my morning crew buddies (hands down, the coolest kids I’ve ever worked with) to take up a new daytime role. I’ll arrive at the office after the sun’s come up and leave before the sun goes down like most people do. “Let five a.m. come!” I thought to myself when my boss delivered the news. We’ve got to go on living.
For a week or two now, it’s been inescapable: “Where were you when?”
My own September 11th story is unremarkable. At the time, I was in my first semester of college at the University of Virginia. I was in my dorm room, getting ready for class when my roommate’s best friend called. Her voice was so emotional I could barely understand what she was saying. Plane? Towers? Even after I turned on the TV, it didn’t make sense. All I really remember about the rest of the day is pressing redial on my phone again and again, trying to reach my brother, who lived in Manhattan at the time, or my mother, who was visiting him that week. My roommate’s parents worked in the Pentagon, and she couldn’t reach them either. I remember walking around Alderman Road and seeing everyone doing the same thing: dialing their cellphones again and again.
My mom and brother were fine — and so were my roommate’s parents. Everyone was a bit shaken but slowly, in media coverage and in our conversations with one another, a narrative began to emerge. The next day I attended a teach-in featuring Politics professors like R. K. Ramazani, Peter Ochs, and Michael J. Smith (who would later become my thesis adviser). The next week, I talked to minority groups on campus. A few months later, I visited my brother in New York. He told me about how his law school roommate, a volunteer firefighter (who would later be the best man at his wedding), had gone down to the World Trade Center site on 9/11. We went to an exhibit of September 11th photos taken by ordinary New Yorkers and hung by clothespins on the small walls of a downtown gallery. As we walked through the city, my brother pointed out which streets had been filled with dust. I spent too long staring at a makeshift memorial in Grand Central. It still didn’t make sense.
It surprises me how much September 11th has entered my career. I’ve spoken with the city medical examiner about identifying victim’s remains from the WTC rubble; I’ve spoken with first responders and post-traumatic stress counselors about 9/11 survivors, interviewed the founder of Stop the Islamization of America and spoken with members of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. I’ve worked on coverage of the controversial Muslim community center project in lower Manhattan and of Osama bin Laden’s death. In recent weeks, I resisted the coming tenth anniversary because it felt like over the years, we (and especially those of us who work in the media) haven’t ever paused from remembering that day. Mark Lilla summed it up sharply in New York magazine: “Remembrance became a narcotic that turned a prosperous nation at peace into a debt-ridden wayward giant lumbering around the world, willfully ignorant of its folly, its speech slurred and incomprehensible to anyone but itself.”
Still, seeing the lights this weekend — the two beams where the towers were, reaching into the sky; and the red, white and blue tiers of the Empire State Building — I was moved by the city’s stubborn memory, and the brighter part of “never forget” that represents an affirmation. As Mayor Bloomberg put it:
We had to show the world that – in everyday lives – terror could not diminish our tolerance. Hate could not defeat our hope. And fanaticism could not destroy our freedom. Each of us did that in a million little ways – in the flags we waved and the blood we gave and the donations we made. We did it in time by volunteering – as rescue and recovery workers, social workers and medical professionals, as caterers and caregivers. We did it in the way we treated each other – with a new-found sense of solidarity. People of every color, of every country, speaking every language, practicing every religion, holding every belief, and yet we were all New Yorkers first – proud of our city, and determined to bring it back.
I wasn’t a New Yorker on September 11th, but now that I live in this city too, I’ve seen those little acts of goodwill and humanity — ordinary acts of kindness and courage — day in and day out. They give me hope.
Growing up in southeastern Virginia, hurricane season was always a time of excitement for me as a kid. Hurricane season was summer’s last hurrah before back-to-school season. It was the surging conclusion to countless days of sweltering heat, countless days at the pool and beach, countless Slurpees, and countless mosquito bites. Hurricane season offered one last chance for real summer drama before it was back to the usual routine.
The backyard of our family home tapered off into a marshy Chesapeake Bay inlet so the prospect of a storm always seemed personal. Would the waters that provided the backdrop for so many gorgeous sunrises and afternoons outdoors really turn on us? It was hard to imagine. If the backyard had a personality of its own, it was a benevolent one. But of course it was clear that the storms (with their quaint, outmoded names like Hugo and Bonnie) had personalities too, and it was arguable that those personalities were not so benevolent. They were certainly fickle and feckless, dying down then speeding back up, making strange last-minute turns, and never quite behaving as predicted.
Disaster preparation is a funny thing. My parents rarely watched TV, but in hurricane season, the TV was on for hours on end, excited meteorologists waving their arms as swirling neon hurricane clouds danced on loop behind them. Mom and Dad would stock up on groceries and bring in lawn furniture and potted plants (my contribution: cutting out pictures of colorful hurricane models from the local paper to paste into a collage), but our preparation usually ended there. One year, my mother swaddled all our old family photo albums in layers of trash bags while we kids regarded her with skepticism. We never boarded our windows, or bought bottled water, or extra batteries or canned food. And we never left.
We were lucky. More often than not, the Carolinas would absorb the worst of the big storm coming our way, leaving the Hampton Roads area drenched but essentially unscathed. The photo albums never did get ruined as my mom had worried. But at the end of every summer, the deadly flirtation would start up again — and as I got older, I started to find the whole ritual of hurricane-watching more and more nerve-wracking. How long could our good luck hold out? Statistically, we were due for a doozy of a storm. All it would take is one little swerve, and low-lying Poquoson would be a trashed puddle.
I was away at college in 2003 when Hurricane Isabel took that tell-tale swerve we’d been waiting for. The reported cost of the damage for the city was almost $100 million dollars, and the devastation visibly changed the landscape of the town. Our backyard alone lost eleven trees, and half our dock washed away. Afterwards, state and federal grants paid for entire neighborhoods to lift their homes onto cinder blocks. Eight years later, Hurricane Irene’s trajectory has me thinking about Isabel and worrying about whether it’s my hometown’s turn to take a hit again. As I write, the two people have already been killed in Virginia by trees falling through windows (one the Hampton Roads area) and 70,000 people are without power on the Peninsula alone.
As for New York City, it’s hard to say what’s in store. I’m in the camp of unbelievers having trouble picturing a serious impact here, though between the mandatory mass evacuations, the MTA’s historic shutdown, and a predicted power outage for much of lower Manhattan, it’s apparent city officials (who should know about these things) are bracing for the worst. Then again, given the strange weather NYC has seen this year — a spree of blizzards, a heat wave, record-breaking rains just a few weeks ago, and last-week’s earthquake — oversized hurricane damage wouldn’t come as a big surprise to me either. As I packed up for another hotel room for the weekend, courtesy of my office, the rain had stopped in Queens. The old man across the street who always sits sentry on the steps of his building in his wheelchair was at his usual post, checking his watch. Storm time yet?
photo: Hurricane Irene as seen from space, via NASA