A Certain Slant of Light

At the end of my hall at work is a picture window and, beyond the window, a leafy tree (still leafy, even though it’s November).  Larkin Street is just below this window.  If you walk up Larkin, you’ll find porn theaters, guys selling watches and drugs, and good Vietnamese food.  The superior court is just across Larkin from the picture window and most days you see lawyers in wrinkled suits going in and out.  People hang around outside the court arguing with each other about child custody, child support, traffic tickets and their obligation to perform jury duty.  It’s a sad street most days, desperate and tawdry.  The light today doesn’t make it look anything other than what it is.

When I looked down the hall today, it struck me that the light is lower in the sky than it was just a week ago — it’s somehow become late in the year, and even this early in the afternoon (it’s 1:00 here), things seem to be ending .   

And that is when I found myself thinking about Emily Dickinson, a woman who knew all about that kind of light. 

 There’s a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.

Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings, are.

None may teach it anything,
‘T is the seal, despair,
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air.

When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, ‘t is like the distance
On the look of death.

Writing Strengths

Charlotte has asked for a list of five of my writing strengths. So, here are my answers. (While I was gone, I was asked other questions, including some by Eoin Purcell, and I have answered those too. Who knows, some day I might even answer all those podlily questions I solicited from you a while back. It is an answering kind of Sunday.)

(1) I have never seen two heterogeneous things and not wondered, What would happen if I banged those together, really hard? Good writing happens when you put together things that don’t belong together. Not everyone agrees with this idea, by the way, and it is also true that bad writing comes out of this banging together of things that don’t go together. I know — I have produced a lot of that.

(2) I stopped writing fiction many times, when I was much younger, discouraged by my lack of genuis, by how hard it was to fit into my life. I don’t have time to give up anymore. I guess that would mean that I am persistent and I don’t have writer’s block.

(3) After I think about what I want to say, and do a lot of editing, my writing is clear. Clarity matters in all kinds of places: in my work as a lawyer, in my fiction, and when I leave notes for people to tell them what to do.

(4) I like words and I know a heck of a lot of them. (The other day, William’s teacher told me that children who read an hour a day acquire more than FOUR MILLION words a year. That must slow down, don’t you think? Still, who knew there were that many words to acquire?) I just wish I could get some of those words to surface on the tip of my tongue (or my fingers) at the precise moment when I most need them and not have them come to me three days later, when I’m making brownies and don’t have a pen handy.

(5) I love stories. I love reading them, I love producing them. I love writing. That is my biggest strength: love.

And what, dear reader, are your 5 (or twelve, or two) writing strengths? Also, what is it I don’t know about you? Having answered these questions, I find I am very interested in YOUR answers, knowing my own quite well already.

Wordless Week

My mother likes to tell people that she cannot remember when I learned to talk because it seems like I have always been talking. Others — my notably silent husband included — would agree.

Blogging has been a great place to locate all that chatting energy. Not just in the posts, but in the conversations that occur in the comments. But lately, I haven’t really felt like talking. I don’t think this is permanent –it’s not as though nothing is happening to me. I’m still reading and writing and working and parenting and cooking and hiking and finding out things I never knew before.

So here’s my plan to ease myself back into chattiness — I thought I’d list the six things I haven’t written about, things about which I normally would have told you more than you could possibly want to know:

1. Our new pressure cooker. I bought a pressure cooker last week, an appliance so weird, but so incredibly useful (and, as it turns out a terribly European thing), that it cries out for appreciation, for some sort of paean to the wonders of this sort of kitchen efficiency that, unlike the microwave, doesn’t ruin your food, but improves it. I did cook in it by the way — two vegetables, because I haven’t had a chance to consider the issue of meat. The broccoli cooked in about four minutes; the brussels sprouts in four and a half. Now that’s not a huge improvement over the normal cooking time for broccoli, but I will tell you here and now that the brussels sprouts were FABULOUS. I don’t really like that vegetable, but they were cooked in some sort of stock and thyme mixture and then a little butter and flour was mixed in afterwards and they were amazing. I’ll get back to you on the meat.

2. Erotic prose. I’ve been thinking about this particular topic a lot lately, as I’ve been warming up, so to speak, for the next novel I write which is about, among other things, sex. The trouble is that I don’t want to — and in fact cannot — write very good erotic prose. But this weekend, I wrote a short story that represented a huge breakthrough in this area. It was both funny and sexy, like the best sexual encounters. If I had time I would write about Lawrence and Joyce, and Anais Nin and Henry Miller, and how not to write a sex scene. And maybe I still will.

3. Jeeves and Wooster. We’ve been watching the BBC series, the one with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, and we love them both. We love how stupid Bertie’s friends are, how good humored he is, and how magically Jeeves sets things to rights. We also like how Jeeves keeps Bertie’s wardrobe miscues under control. Are the books as good as the series? We’re going to have to find out.

4. Colm Toibin’s Mothers and Sons. I’ve only read the first story, but I can already tell that this is a harrowing, beautifully written, wonderful book. I heard him read one of these stories at Stanford a few months ago, a story about a boy whose mother was a famous singer, and had abandoned him (or so he was told) when he was a baby. It’s the sort of story that makes you wish you were alone in the room so you could cry and not bother the people around you. By the way, his name is pronounced like this: “Call-um, Toebean”  — I think)

5. Spring. Asparagus. Strawberries. April Showers. Lemons.

6. T.S. Eliot’s Preludes, and why I loved this poem when I was in my twenties. (Because it was so wonderfully grim, and so romantic — that part about the “infinitely gentle/infinitely suffering thing” particularly) It is here, if you are interested:

The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimneypots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.


The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.

With the other masquerades
That times resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.

You tossed a blanket from the bed
You lay upon your back, and waited;
You dozed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted;
They flickered against the ceiling.
And when all the world came back
And the light crept up between the shutters
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters,
You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands;
Sitting along the bed’s edge, where
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.
His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o’clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.


The video of Hussein’s execution is making its way around and around the globe, raising in its wake howl after howl: he deserved it, this is the way all evil people should end, I can’t believe you can see him dying right there on the screen!

The spectacle of a public execution has always been one way people in power try to distract us from what’s really true. And what’s really true, and has always been true in one way or another, is that those in whom we’ve entrusted the power to act on our behalf haven’t deserved our trust. In fact, those people are the ones who’ve put into motion many of the things they’ve been charged with fixing.

And while that video plays on millions of computer screens, Iraq plunges deeper into civil war, children die from preventable diseases, genocide continues in Africa, and the polar ice caps melt just a little bit more.  But the person watching the screen is distracted by the spectacle of an actual video of a man being hanged, and fails to see that evil goes on about its insidious business while he is turned the other way, transfixed, watching something that has changed not one single thing for the better.

But here’s something else I know, something lots of people know, either deep within or right on the surface. It’s this: No evil in the world can be fixed until you call it by its proper name. So let’s start things off by calling Hussein’s execution what it really is: smokescreen. Not justice. Having done that, we can then call what’s happening in Iraq a civil war for which Americans are responsible. Not public infighting. The fact that children die from preventable diseases? Wrong. Not regrettable.

If you’re going to resolve to do anything this year it should be to insist on the right names for things. Because when you do, you will stand up to the people who want us to forget how much there is to be done, the people who this week would like us to think that this execution fixes any of the things that are tearing Iraq apart, that it has anything to do with true justice. And when you do that, you will quiet for a moment the insensible howl of the mob and replace it with the sound of your voice saying clearly the right names for the things that are wrong. And maybe then we will be able to get on with making right some of the things in the world that are wrong.

Imminent Victorians

Okay, for starters, I know it’s Eminent Victorians. But it’s next up on my list of books to write about and so …. you know. (Sorry. Nothing is un-funnier than a pun somebody tries to explain.)

I’ll begin by saying that Eminent Victorians is part of a larger reading plan for this month, a month when I’d like to re-read a few things I first read in my twenties. I wonder how well those books will have worn twenty years later. I did this a bit over the spring and summer, and even gave it a name: the Madeleine Project. But I haven’t done as much of it as I’d like, and since it’s cold outside these days, and the fireplace looks so warm, and I’m taking things a little slower, it seems like an ideal month to re-read.  (In fact, I’ve just noticed I’m in great company:  Dorothy and Danielle have both written about books they’d like to re-read.)  

And now, on to the book: Eminent Victorians, for those who don’t know, is a series of biographical sketches written by one of the Bloomsbury notables, Lytton Strachey. I’ve always wondered how his last name is pronounced, so I googled it. It’s strakey, which rhymes with flakey. (As in, doesn’t post on a regular schedule, doesn’t stick to the same topic and has been known to make really stupid jokes.)

When I read Eminent Victorians twenty years ago, I loved the piece on Florence Nightingale (I even wrote down something about how Nightingale saw God as a glorified sanitary engineer and so she felt free to boss him around just like she bossed everybody else in Victorian England around.) And I had no idea things went so badly for General Gordon, having never heard of General Gordon and not knowing the British military had such a hard time of it after the American Revolution.

I was also unaware at the time that these sketches were considered sort of shockingly modern, something I’ve since discovered, mostly through reading about Strachey in the context of Virginia Woolf, who thought at one time she might marry him. (Good thing that passed, is all I can say.)

The copy I’ve got this time around is illustrated, so there are interesting pictures of the notables Strachey writes about. They certainly look stuffy –especially the ecclesiastical figures he spends a good part of the book talking about. Or maybe the pictures were chosen to emphasis all the Victorian stuffiness that Strachey was reacting against.

The question I’d like to answer is this: just exactly what did Strachey think “un-stuffy” looked like? Strachey, at least from his photographs and the things I’ve read about him in Virginia Woolf’s diaries, was a bit of a piece of work himself. So how he goes about kicking aside the traces really interests me.

I hope it interests you, too, because that’s what I’m devoting my next post to. (By the way, the sketch of Strachey you see at the beginning of the post is on the cover of his letters, which look quite interesting.)

This Morning the Writing Cafe is Serving

Wallace Stevens’s lovely poem, Sea Surface Full of Clouds. I haven’t thought of this poem in a very long time, but I was reminded of it recently by this terrific writer.

I guess my affection for Stevens is clear. He was the first poet I felt like I understood  — maybe because the poems I first read were the accessible ones and so gave me the illusion of mastering a difficult poet:   Sunday Morning, The Snow Man, and Tea at the Palaz of Hoon.

Stevens was a lawyer. He wrote his poems while he walked to work through Elizabeth Park in Hartford and then he had his secretary type them up. He kept his life as a poet and his life at the insurance company pretty much separate. He loved France and the French. He also really liked good food, and he loved Key West, and he wasn’t above asking people to send him parcels of interesting objects from places like Ceylon and Japan. He didn’t travel, not physically anyway. The next book I write (after I finish radiation therapy and get done with the elusive last few chapters of The Secret War) will be about him.

Here’s the poem:
Sea Surface Full Of Clouds, Wallace Stevens


In that November off Tehuantepec,
The slopping of the sea grew still one night
And in the morning summer hued the deck

And made one think of rosy chocolate
And gilt umbrellas. Paradisal green
Gave suavity to the perplexed machine

Of ocean, which like limpid water lay.
Who, then, in that ambrosial latitude
Out of the light evolved the morning blooms,

Who, then, evolved the sea-blooms from the clouds
Diffusing balm in that Pacific calm?
C’était mon enfant, mon bijou, mon âme.

The sea-clouds whitened far below the calm
And moved, as blooms move, in the swimming green
And in its watery radiance, while the hue

Of heaven in an antique reflection rolled
Round those flotillas. And sometimes the sea
Poured brilliant iris on the glistening blue.


In that November off Tehuantepec
The slopping of the sea grew still one night.
At breakfast jelly yellow streaked the deck

And made one think of chop-house chocolate
And sham umbrellas. And a sham-like green
Capped summer-seeming on the tense machine

Of ocean, which in sinister flatness lay.
Who, then, beheld the rising of the clouds
That strode submerged in that malevolent sheen,

Who saw the mortal massives of the blooms
Of water moving on the water-floor?
C’était mon frère du ciel, ma vie, mon or.

The gongs rang loudly as the windy booms
Hoo-hooed it in the darkened ocean-blooms.
The gongs grew still. And then blue heaven spread

Its crystalline pendentives on the sea
And the macabre of the water-glooms
In an enormous undulation fled.


In that November off Tehuantepec,
The slopping of the sea grew still one night
And a pale silver patterned on the deck

And made one think of porcelain chocolate
And pied umbrellas. An uncertain green,
Piano-polished, held the tranced machine

Of ocean, as a prelude holds and holds,
Who, seeing silver petals of white blooms
Unfolding in the water, feeling sure

Of the milk within the saltiest spurge, heard, then,
The sea unfolding in the sunken clouds?
Oh! C’était mon extase et mon amour.

So deeply sunken were they that the shrouds,
The shrouding shadows, made the petals black
Until the rolling heaven made them blue,

A blue beyond the rainy hyacinth,
And smiting the crevasses of the leaves
Deluged the ocean with a sapphire blue.


In that November off Tehuantepec
The night-long slopping of the sea grew still.
A mallow morning dozed upon the deck

And made one think of musky chocolate
And frail umbrellas. A too-fluent green
Suggested malice in the dry machine

Of ocean, pondering dank stratagem.
Who then beheld the figures of the clouds
Like blooms secluded in the thick marine?

Like blooms? Like damasks that were shaken off
From the loosed girdles in the spangling must.
C’était ma foi, la nonchalance divine.

The nakedness would rise and suddenly turn
Salt masks of beard and mouths of bellowing,
Would—But more suddenly the heaven rolled

Its bluest sea-clouds in the thinking green,
And the nakedness became the broadest blooms,
Mile-mallows that a mallow sun cajoled.


In that November off Tehuantepec
Night stilled the slopping of the sea.
The day came, bowing and voluble, upon the deck,

Good clown… One thought of Chinese chocolate
And large umbrellas. And a motley green
Followed the drift of the obese machine

Of ocean, perfected in indolence.
What pistache one, ingenious and droll,
Beheld the sovereign clouds as jugglery

And the sea as turquoise-turbaned Sambo, neat
At tossing saucers—cloudy-conjuring sea?
C’était mon esprit bâtard, l’ignominie.

The sovereign clouds came clustering. The conch
Of loyal conjuration trumped. The wind
Of green blooms turning crisped the motley hue

To clearing opalescence. Then the sea
And heaven rolled as one and from the two
Came fresh transfigurings of freshest blue.

The photograph at the top of the post is San Francisco City Hall a few days ago. There were so many clouds, dark clouds, and under them a kind of saturated blue you only see in the fall.

Writing About Children

There’s a temptation in writing about and describing childhood and children to forget that both are most interesting when they are least about us — the adults, that is. There’s a reason why so many great children’s books begin with the death of parents. The true life of a child, the one most children want to read about, is the one in which children have free rein to be the weird, obsessive, imaginative, odd and powerful people they both are and would like to be.  Which is to say, people a lot like adults, except the wildness that we’re all capable of flourishes in great children’s literature because, well, because the adults who’d tell you to stop climbing trees or escaping into a different dimension or lifting horses up over your head are all dead.  Or on very long vacations or sea voyages.  Or have left the children with nannies who aren’t really adults but are instead magical people.  Or are away at war. 

The books I most liked as a child had very few adults in them. Books like the Chronicles of Narnia (Aslan wasn’t really an adult was he?) and Pippi Longstocking. You wonder, though, who the adults were who remembered to leave themselves out. So much contemporary children’s fiction fails to do this, because it seems most motivated by a desire to teach children how to become adults. And when that’s your goal, then you end up with an adult-child ratio that’s about even.  Not what you want if you’d like to eat candy for dinner.

And because I have to leave for the dentist in about half an hour and still have to make lunches and get dressed, I have to cut this meditation on writing about and for children short. I just want to say this: Alison Lurie had it right in her book about children’s fiction: the best writing for children is subversive, writing that doesn’t really have anything to teach children except maybe that they should hang onto who they are and not be in such a hurry to be adults.

When you become an adult, after all, and wake up in the morning, you will discover you have to go to the dentist. When you are a child and wake up in the morning, you will lie in bed looking out the window and wonder how it is that the moon can still be up in the sky and what would it be like to go up there some morning instead of going to school. And you don’t hear your mother downstairs in the kitchen getting ready for the adult day because you’re inventing whatever you need to invent to get yourself out the window of your room and into the adventure that is your childhood.

Security Check

You know that thing you have to do when you want to leave a comment on a blog or buy tickets to an Oakland A’s game, which you might still be able to do if the A’s hadn’t  just totally collapsed and lost in four straight games their chance of going to the World Series, not that we blame them because they’re a young, scrappy team and they looked like they were having fun when it actually SNOWED in Detroit, as they were losing those last two games. 

I digress.  What happens is you’re presented with a long string of random letters and told to retype them, to prove you’re not a weirdo trying to steal someone’s bank account numbers or push viagra. Everyone knows that spammers refuse to try to retype long strings of letters, particularly if there’s any distortion in them.  They’re too busy going after the easy marks, the people who actually will email them back the password to their retirement account so they can get back to buying things on Ebay.  

Anyway, it turns out you have a lot in common with the guy in North Korea who wants to sell you some used uranium.  Like him, you sit at your computer, staring at something like this —  qzxmpwepjoxxcyltvqum – except the string of letters is so distorted that the y looks like a j or maybe a q.  I have never, ever retyped those letters correctly the first time I’ve tried.  Just like the spammers.  And just like the spammers, sometimes I don’t even try.  On bad days, I just want to lie down and sleep when I see that string of letters.

I recently learned that it doesn’t have to be this way.  BookMooch, for example, has figured this out. On their site, all you have to do is re-type the name of a famous writer.  Apparently the purveyors of suspicious pharma and financial schemes cannot type the names of famous writers either.  So that’s it. “Cather” I can do. Even if it’s distorted.  I’d work hard to find out which writer they wanted me to retype.  It’s the exact opposite of what happens when I see qzxmpwepjoxxcyltvqum.  If I can’t lie down right away, I consider buying a pharmaceutical product.   One that would sharpen my eyesight, make my hands steadier, and help me concentrate.  Oh, that’s a latte?  Except for the steady hands part.  I could do that, but I’d have to step away from my computer to accomplish it.

Wanting to make the world a better place and to make it easier for me to buy things on the internet and leave worthless comments on blogs, I’ve resolved to email the people who run Blogger (if they’re not too busy spending all the money they got yesterday from Google delivered in three semi-trucks filled with cash) and suggest they start having people type in the names of really, really good food as their security check. Creme anglaise I can type. I am good with gorgonzola. And if I don’t know what it is (sweetbreads, for example), I might actually look it up and increase my store of knowledge.  I can’t see a Nigerian pyramid schemer sitting still for that.  Or maybe they could have us retype the names of great bloggers and blogreaders. (If you are reading this, then that would be you.) But please, let’s get rid of qzxmpwepjoxxcyltvqumo.

 And that’s all I have to say about anything this lovely Sunday morning.

This Morning the Writing Cafe is Serving…

Anne Sexton

Anne Sexton’s wonderful autumnal poem, Her Kind. The recommended menu while reading this poem? Pumpkin bread and hot apple cider. (Tea is an acceptable substitute for the apple cider.)

If you’d like to assume the persona of the writer, then you’ll have to put on a slash of lipstick. Your menu would then be a cigarette and a glass of scotch. Don’t be Sexton for too long, though. It was a lot of work being her and it did not end well. But while she was able, she managed to transform the nightmare of mental illness into art. And that is something to be celebrated this autumn morning.

If you’d like to hear Sexton read this poem, you can do that at the Academy of American Poets website. And if you’d like to know more about Sexton, Diane Middlebrook’s excellent biography is a good place to start. The biography made a little bit of a splash when it first came out because it’s based in part on tapes Sexton’s analyst made of their sessions. It’s a compulsively readable book. And Her Kind is a wonderful, accessible poem made to be read out loud.

Her Kind, Anne Sexton

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.

(Without question, because of its chill factor and wildness, this poem is on my list of 100 favorite poems. I’m now up to 5 of 100. Maybe getting up to 25 or so would be a good winter project.)

A Quiet Day in the Writing Cafe

I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned my devotion to Yeats.  It’s because of poems like The Lake Isle of Innisfree, an early poem, written in the 1890s.  It rhymes and has a regular meter and is the sort of thing you might murmur to yourself when you wake up and want nothing more than to spend the day drinking tea and thinking about what’s in “the deep heart’s core.” Here it is, number 4 of 100 favorite poems (not in any particular order): 

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the mourning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Happy Trails

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about endings. It’s not just because, about a month ago, a doctor told me I have stage 3 cancer, and I hung up the phone thinking, that’s it then, better burn those diaries from college. (In fact, I don’t have stage 3 cancer — she was an idiot. I’m going to be fine.) My thoughts about endings probably have more to do with the fact that I’m actually nearing the finish of my first novel, the one I’ve been writing for, oh, maybe five years. When the conversation among my friends turns to it, I feel the way I do when I look in the fridge and see something that’s been in there way, way too long. I want to slam the door and point out the window and say, my goodness look at that sunset.

Endings are hard. This morning, my husband had to fire someone. (A bad someone, but still….) He hasn’t been able to sleep for days. Even simple social goodbyes can be difficult for some. I have a friend who’s an otherwise intelligent (brilliant, in fact) person. And yet, this friend always thinks of one more thing to talk about before we’re about to go, a date to make, or a gift to give, or a worry to display. You stand there, hand on the doorknob, unable to close the deal on goodbye, wondering why your friend does this.

But it’s actually quite common. And it begins early. Children have a very difficult time with goodbyes the first few times they have to say them to their parents. When one of my boys started preschool, he cried every day for a week when I left. I had no idea, really, what an act of courage it was for him to bid me goodbye. I knew I was going to be back in a few hours and that these people were a lot more fun than I am. He, on the other hand, knew I was never coming back. What did he know? To him, it was just as likely that today was the day he’d discover he’d been born into a culture where parents leave their beloved children at daycare and then never come back, sort of like the way the Spartans left their children naked on cold hillsides after birth to to make sure only the hardy ones became Spartans. The others? Well, they later became the inventors of gortex.

For children, as for adults, sometimes the fear of goodbye can be cured simply through the repetition of happy returnings, of regular lunch dates, of having your mother come and pick you up just when she says she will. The truth, though, is closer to my son’s real fear. It’s maybe what my friend who can’t say goodbye already knows too well: at some point there are terminal goodbyes. And those are very, very hard.

Which brings me to my novel, the one that’s almost done and then I can stop cringing about it. It’s a mystery. I love writing it. I like very much having a structure already there and then populating it with my own creations. And I do know pretty much how it ends. You have to. One of the pleasures of writing and reading genre fiction is that you know — at least very broadly — how it will end.

In a way, genre fiction mimics life in the utter predictability of its endings. The end of every life is death. The endings in genre fiction are similarly unvarying: the shy girl from Nebraska will always marry the dark sexy guy from Manhattan, the town will always be cleared of the guys who steal cattle and the mysterious stranger will move on, the good detective will make some mistakes along the way, but in the end he will always figure out what happens.But in mimicking one of the few things that are certain in life, genre fiction also offers us a consolation of sorts. Perhaps the frightening thing about death is not so much that we die, but that we don’t know when or how. We don’t know if the last page of our lives will be a chapter into the story, or in the middle of the love scene, or just before we find out who did it. Genre fiction (and to a certain degree, all realistic fiction) tells us this: Yes, there will be an ending. There will always be that. But it will be a predictable ending, and if you choose to, you will be allowed to go the entire pleasurable ride. And you will be entertained, and surprised along the way. No one will betray you with something you didn’t expect. The end will always make sense.

That life is not like this is something that need not concern us today. Today, I’m on the trail and can see the end of my mystery in sight. It’s terribly satisfying to be here. Even more thrilling, though, is knowing that when I finish this one, I’ll be able to start another. And another. Until my own end which, I’m happy to report, is not yet in sight.

Three Poems Down, 97 to Go

All around the web, industrious people are making lists of the 100 best poems of all time. Can you imagine? I couldn’t do one hundred of anything, except maybe peanut M&Ms on a very bad day. But I like thinking about poetry, so I thought I’d try ten at a time, starting with Chaucer and, proceeding in groups of ten until I ended with Seamus Heaney. Sadly, I managed to write down three poems and why I love them before I had to quit and reach for the M&Ms. At this rate, it’ll take me until the dawn of the next millenium to get to Wordsworth. Which is fine. I’ve got a stash of M&Ms and all the time and poetry books in the world.

Canterbury WindowThe Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer seems like the best place to start. When I was in college, every English major had to take a really hard class called English 125. One reason it was thought to be difficult is because you were required to memorize the first eighteen lines of the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. People didn’t like memorizing Middle English. And so this requirement regularly drove English majors into Economics. Coming from my small, crappy public high school, I was so scared of it I waited until I was a junior to sign up for it.

Funny thing is, it wasn’t that difficult. All you had to do was go to the language lab. Once there, the recorded voice of a woman who sounded exactly like Ingrid Berman murmured the lines into my headphones, over and over, for an hour or two until I got it just right. I still remember walking out of the language lab into the twilight, the bells from the churches on the little New England green sounding the hour. There were a lot of cobblestoned paths, and I picked my way along, reciting to myself, feeling vaguely foreign and very far away from Tacoma, Washington. Every once in a while, I’d run across somebody else, doing exactly the same thing. You didn’t say anything, you just nodded at one other, fellow pilgrims, setting out on a wonderful journey.

Figuring out what the prologue meant, line by line, phrase by phrase, sometimes word by word, was a heartening exercise in slow, deep reading. By the time I had memorized the first piece of it and looked it all over closely, I knew it down to my bones. In the prologue, Chaucer sets a wonderful scene: It’s April. Spring is arriving — the sweet showers have come and there’s new life springing up everywhere. People are beginning to feel restless. When that happens, they go on pilgrimages, particularly to Canterbury, which apparently was a good place to go on a pilgrimage. When you’re through with the prologue, you’re ready for the pilgrims to take a long rest at an inn to introduce themselves, which is what they seem to spend the rest of the Canterbury Tales doing.

If you’d like to read the prologue, in Middle English, it’s here.

Ariel’s Song from The Tempest. It’s silly to think you could make just one choice from all of Shakespeare, and that from a play, but Ariel’s song, from the Tempest, is quite wonderful. In many of the comedies, you see people going into the forest, or being shipwrecked, or putting on a disguise or even some combination of these things. What matters is that they lose themselves somehow. And then, by the end of the play, they emerge, transformed. Ariel’s Song is about that, in a way. In her hands, of course, the sea change makes a sort of precious fossil out of a man. But it gestures toward the living transformations that are happening on the island as she sings. You could memorize this song, and walk around, singing it, feeling very sprite-like:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Ding-dong Hark! now I hear them—Ding-dong, bell.

It’s this: the sea change/Into something rich and strange, that I love about Shakespeare.

The Relic. Donne is incredibly sexy. I was shocked when I found that out. I’d never expected poetry by someone dead to be sexy. When I was 18, I had a huge, fateful, hopeless thing for a guy who happened to like Donne. This poem reminds me of how I felt about him when I was 18. Actually, to tell the truth, it reminds me of how I wished he would feel about ME when we were 18.  The amount of desire that’s encapsulated in this poem is astonishing.  And although Donne suggests this love was never consummated physically, it’s the denial and holding back that’s truly erotic.  I love the “bracelet of bright hair about the bone” and how completely Donne loved this woman, this miracle.

The Relic
WHEN my grave is broke up again
Some second guest to entertain,
—For graves have learn’d that woman-head,
To be to more than one a bed—
And he that digs it, spies
A bracelet of bright hair about the bone,
Will he not let us alone,
And think that there a loving couple lies,
Who thought that this device might be some way
To make their souls at the last busy day
Meet at this grave, and make a little stay?

If this fall in a time, or land,
Where mass-devotion doth command,
Then he that digs us up will bring
Us to the bishop or the king,
To make us relics ; then
Thou shalt be a Mary Magdalen, and I
A something else thereby ;
All women shall adore us, and some men.
And, since at such time miracles are sought,
I would have that age by this paper taught
What miracles we harmless lovers wrought.

First we loved well and faithfully,
Yet knew not what we loved, nor why ;
Difference of sex we never knew,
No more than guardian angels do ;
Coming and going we
Perchance might kiss, but not between those meals ;
Our hands ne’er touch’d the seals,
Which nature, injured by late law, sets free.
These miracles we did ; but now alas !
All measure, and all language, I should pass,
Should I tell what a miracle she was.

There you have it: three wonderful poems. 97 to go.

The Madeleine Project: A Visit to the Meta-Towers

The Madeleine Project is the name for my effort to go back and see if that which gave pleasure in the past still resonates when it’s revisited. The only rule is that it can’t be expensive to relive the past. For me that means you have to be able to check the past out from the library, rent the DVD, or get the ingredients for it at Safeway.

So far, I’ve looked at poetry (Donne’s St. Lucy’s Day). I’ve been meaning to re-experience my favorite green pasta with fake Parmesan, but haven’t gotten around to it.

Trollope is the next installment in the Madeleine series. About twenty years ago, while I was studying for the California bar exam, I spent the summer reading Trollope. I loved Barchester Towers, in part because it was so good at skewering an institution that takes itself so seriously. In the case of Barchester Towers, that institution is organized religion. Twenty years ago, I was worried about entering an institution sort of like the church, an institution that seemed to take itself awfully seriously, the law. In fact, the law and the church were two professions often chosen by sons who weren’t first in line for the family title. As the fourth child, and with no family title for anybody, it seemed like a good choice. Back then, I suspected I wasn’t going to be very good at my new job, the one I was due to start after the bar exam. I hadn’t liked law school. There weren’t enough stories. The interesting ones were buried in the case books and nobody ever wanted to really talk about them.

What Trollope did was demonstrate that people in power, the people I was a little afraid of, can be utterly ridiculous. I went on to read the Palliser novels, a series that took on politics. And then individual great novels like Can You Forgive Her? and the Eustace Diamonds. The last two are well worth reading again. I’ve never forgotten that thing about people in power often behaving in utterly ridiculous ways. The Palliser novels were a bit of a slog. Other people like them very much, so you might want to check them out too.

In case you’re curious, here are the things I know about Trollope. His mother made much needed money by writing. She was pretty good and pretty popular. Trollope didn’t have a patron, unless you count the postal service, which is where he worked, as an administrator for a good part of his life. Money was a worry for him. He is credited with inventing the post box, that wonderful British icon.

He is also one of the great 19th century novelists and Barchester Towers is probably his most well known novel. It’s the story of a lovely, leafy town in England and the shenanigans that happen among the clerical set when a new bishop and his odious wife and assistant come to town. The novel is full of men and women whose business it is to bring the Church of England to the world. (I say women because, although women obviously weren’t preaching from pulpits, one of the novel’s greatest characters, Mrs. Proudie, does her utmost to run things from behind the scenes.)

There are wonderful things here, very funny looks at how foolishly people behave. For that alone, this novel should be read more than once. It will cure you of pomposity and stubborness — at least while you’re reading it. Afterwards, well, that’s up to you.

The thing I kept noticing this time around, though, is something I don’t remember from reading it before. It’s the narrative voice. It’s a third person narrative, but the narrator (who is never named and not a character) has a personality. He’s a chatty guy. And every once in a while, he breaks in and tells you what’s really going on. It’s a little like the moment in film when a character turns and addresses the camera, except in this case the narrator isn’t a character. That moment, by the way, has seldom worked for me (too self-conscious, too hip, too meta). But this narrator really does. And he proves that Trollope had a light hand with the meta-stuff. (I’m just guessing, and I hope you Dear Reader will correct me if I’m wrong, but a meta-something is just a comment on the way that something works. A meta-novel draws attention to itself as a novel, for example.)

Here’s an example. One of the subplots in the novel concerns a woman named Eleanor Bold. She is that most wonderful of characters in English fiction: the rich, beautiful widow. Naturally, a lot of people are interested in whom she’ll marry next. (There’s no question she’ll marry again. The funny thing is that she’s the only one who’s utterly unaware of the speculation around what she’ll do. She’s too busy spoiling her young son to see much of this.) The worst thing that could happen, in the eyes of many (including her father, sister and brother in law) is that she’ll marry the horrible greasy curate, Snope, and bring the odious Mrs. Proudie into their circle and basically ruin their lives. And then there’s Bertie Stanhope, a ne’er do well fortune hunter who’s also trying to worm his way into her affections. Nobody really cares that these two men would be bad for Eleanor, they just don’t want her to chose someone they don’t like. I admire Trollope for recognizing how deeply self-involved we all are. And although he laughs about it, he sees this as a universal weakness rather than an individual character flaw — and that’s because he’s a generous novelist.

So how does he handle the suspense about Eleanor’s future? He tells you not to worry about it:

“But let the gentle-hearted reader be under no apprehension whatsoever. It is not destined that Eleanor shall marry Mr. Slope or Bertie Stanhope.”

He goes on to explain that this kind of suspense isn’t to his taste as a novelist:

“And here, perhaps it may be allowed to the novelist to explain his view on a very important point in the art of telling tales. He ventures to reprobate that system which goes too far to violate all proper confidence between the author and his readers, by maintaining nearly to the end of the third volume a mystery as to the fate of their favourite personage.”

Not for him, these kinds of mysteries. He points out that your friends are likely to tell you what happened anyway, or you can just turn to the last page to find out what happens. And then he says something I just love, which is, essentially, that a good story isn’t held together by keeping a reader in suspense:

“…take the last chapter if you please — learn from its pages all the results of our troubled story, and the story shall have lost none of its interest, if indeed there by any interest in it to lose.

“Our doctrine is, that the author and the reader should move along together in full confidence with each other. Let the personages of the drama undergo ever so complete a comedy of errors among themselves, but let the spectator never mistake the Syracusan for the Ephesian; otherwise he is one of the dupes, and the part of a dupe is never dignified.”

I do so like that idea: A writer’s job is to make the reader feel like she’s been taken into his confidence. And what that means is that the writer will never deceive the reader as he tells his story. At its most basic, that simply means that the writer’s job is to be honest with the reader, to convey as carefully and accurately as he can the truth of the story he is telling. That doesn’t preclude humor or wit or even the occasional surprise — it means that the writer’s essential promise to the reader is that the writer will tell the best story he knows how to tell.

Twenty years later, that’s a wonderful thing to hear. I give Barchester Towers ten madeleines, ten being the highest on the madeleine scale.

Is it Mee-Mee or Meam?

I confess, I don’t know what a meme is, or how it’s pronounced. I see it used a lot, and I think it’s like the word “meta” — something I wouldn’t like, something sort of ironic and self-conscious and twenty-first century. I’ve never even looked the word meme up, fearing it will make me feel inadequate and uncool, like semiotics.

So, when the sweet Miss Almost Bluestocking asked me to answer some questions about books, and called these questions a meme, I had a moment of weird anti-technology poo-pooing. The kind of thing I shouldn’t admit, come to think of it. But since I’m being honest here, I’ll just say that when I do this I generally think, “a forty-six year old woman does not [fill in the blank -- in this case it's meme]. ”  You know, it could look undignified.

And then I thought, well goodness, how is it going to hurt you to do something new, missy? They’re just questions. I answer questions all the time. (Mom, how much was a penny worth when you were a kid? is the kind of question I’m called on to answer all the time. That, and “Who has the world’s biggest army?”) And at least these are questions that have nothing to do with weapons or candy. And they’re interesting (and Ms. Bluestocking has interesting answers.)

Here are the questions. And here are my answers. Come to think of it, though, I’d actually rather hear YOUR answer, Dear Reader, if you want to give this a go.

Here’s what I want you to do. Imagine Terry Gross, of National Public Radio, is asking you these questions on her radio show, the one where she only interviews people worth hearing from. You’ve just won a Pulitzer, or some such honor. You’re feeling humble, a bit besieged by all the interest in you, but secretly hoping the guy (or girl) who dumped you in college is listening and regretting his behavior. By the way, you’re actually not really besieged, you’re just acting that way because it seems properly modest. In fact, you’re beyond thrilled that Terry Gross cares even the tiniest bit what you think about anything at all. Got that? Okay, I think we’re ready for the mee-mee.  Wipe the cream cheese off your nose.  Okay.  We’re set.

  1. One book that changed your life.
    No book. I don’t think books change your life. I think they do something even better: as they teach you to be a better reader, books help you acquire skills to live a happier life. Two examples: Mysteries help you learn to spot the bad guy. Poetry helps you learn to express yourself succinctly. I could go on, but I think these answers are supposed to be succinct.
  2. One book that you’ve read more than once. The Odyssey. Every fall for about ten years, I would re-read the Odyssey. I loved the fact that I found something new every time I read it. I also love the way it’s structured, with the framing device of Telemachus’s journey. And although I’m a peace loving woman, I really like that scene where Odysseus and his son give the rotten suitors what they deserve.
  3. One book you’d want on a desert island.
    Shakespeare. Collected Works. I hope that’s not cheating. It’s all there: history, comedy, tragedy. Poetry.
  4. One book that made you laugh.
    That very funny book by David Sedaris, the name of which escapes me — the one where he describes learning to speak French and what an idiot he is. I like him very much, and have adored him ever since I heard him describe on National Public Radio his adventures as a department store elf during the holiday season.
  5. One book that made you cry.
    Oh, definitely, that would be Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. I think it’s seeing the truth through the eyes of a repressed narrator that did it for me. I found it unbearably sad to be in the head of a man who didn’t know how to secure his own happiness.
  6. One book that you wish had been written.
    What a great question. I think the answer to this is almost always the last book of a writer you didn’t know had died until you asked for the next book and found out there weren’t anymore. The most recent sad example of this is Sebald, the great German writer who died not long after Austerlitz came out — such a wonderful and important book. And you just knew he had more to say.
  7. One book that you wish had never been written.
    I’m a first amendment absolutist. There’s no such book.
  8. One book you’re currently reading.
    Trollope’s Barchester Towers.
  9. One book you’ve been meaning to read.
    Swann’s Way. I actually have sort of read this before — through the gestation and births of three children. By the time I got to the end I had no idea what had happened in the beginning. I wonder if it will be different now that I’m not sleepless and nursing. I have a new translation, a Penguin one. We’ll see.

So, okay, that wasn’t too bad. I was sipping a champagne cocktail while I did that, could you tell? And I was wearing a great pair of sling backs. And a slick pencil skirt. I looked famous, and properly fit (not too thin, not too plump — but clearly able to sword fight my way out of the radio station if necessary.) Even though it was a radio audience, everybody could tell there was a pencil skirt involved.  Terry kept smiling at me and refilling my glass. (Were you listening, college boyfriend? Are you sorry now??) Anyway, Dear Reader, it’s your turn. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.

Short:Sweet (and a little Shakespeare, at the very end)

Today, I’ve been thinking about brevity. Brevity in writing and in speaking. It’s a continuation of yesterday’s thought, the one about how it is more effective to show than to tell. It’s also true that it is sometimes more effective to say something once, and with wit and brevity, than to repeat yourself or twitter on about something you’ve already said. If you want people (here I am referring to readers and to children) to follow you up the steep hill, you have to make it look like an easy hike.

Metaphor Switch, for those who do best when food is invoked: We cannot eat Thanksgiving dinner every night of the year. Nor can we survive on evening meals that consist of nectarines, yogurt and raspberries. We need both sorts of nourishment.

This is today’s:

The container I keep my yogurt in has a little bit of Shakespeare on it (I’ll leave you to guess, along with Edwin, whether the reference to oranges and fruits is Shakespearean or not). But in tiny writing underneath the oranges and fruits, you’ll find this, which is more assuredly Shakespeare:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

And if you’re curious, here’s the rest of this sonnet:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Enjoy your day, or your evening, depending on where in the world you are.