Friday, November 29, 2013

Naming Names

Two good things happened this week: I got the news that one portion of the collaborative project I worked on this summer on Shalamov's Kolyma Tales will be published next fall.  (In one of the most prestigious journals of Slavic Studies in the US--The Slavic and East European Journal.)

I also read a good book.  Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake (2003).

I actually didn't realize until I began reading it that Lahiri is originally from Rhode Island.  Much of the novel takes place in the suburbs of Boston and in the cities of New Haven and New York, and key scenes take place on the Metro North train that runs the I-95 corridor between NY and Boston.

So that was a fun feeling for me: having a kind of personal connection to the places and sites mentioned.

But that certainly wasn't the sole reason I liked Lahiri's novel.  I think she is a beautiful writer: as I mentioned in a previous post, I read her short-story collection The Interpreter of Maladies, several years ago, and although it wasn't an all-time favorite, I did like it and I wanted to read more of her work.

The Namesake traces several decades in the life of Gogol--later "Nikhil"--Ganguli, the son of Bengali parents who emigrate to the United States in the 1960's.  It examines issues of acculturation and identity, using the motifs of travel, relationships, and loss.

In particular, Lahiri highlights the drama of Gogol's name: his parents give him the name of his father's favorite 19th-century Russian author, in an act that simultaneously invokes a very specific episode of his father's past in Calcutta (sorry, no spoilers in my blog posts!) and compensates for a coincidental gap that occurs in the family's transition from Bengali culture to the United States.

She thus situates her protagonist's name--and his identity--on a complex intersection of "East" and "West" and uses this as a way of organizing her novel's plot and characterization.  Unlike many novels that depict different generations of a family coping with the facts of emigration and transitioning between cultures, Lahiri doesn't simply focus on the tensions and psychological conflicts--she considers the compromises and resolutions as well.

The question of what a name means, what it signifies both to the individual him- or herself, what it invokes, and how it connects a person to the world around him or her--both the world that exists today and the world of the past, that may or may not be in the process of disappearing completely--offers a really interesting way of thinking about social and individual identity and the role that memory plays in each.

And, as I said, Lahiri is a wonderful writer.  In one of my favorite scenes of the novel, father and son are on the beach in Cape Cod in early winter.  The father walks farther and farther out, across the breakwater to "the narrow, final inward crescent of sand" and the lighthouse.  Although he is still quite little, his son Gogol follows him. 

When they reach the end, they realize they forgot to bring the camera.

The father says, "We will have to remember it, then."
"They look around, at the gray and white town that glowed across the harbor. Then they started back again, for a while trying not to make an extra set of footsteps, inserting their shoes into the ones they had just made. A wind had picked up, so strong that it forced them to stop now and then. 
"Will you remember this day, Gogol?" his father had asked, turning back to look at him, his hands pressed like earmuffs to either side of his head. 
"How long do I have to remember it?" 
Over the rise and fall of the wind, he could hear his father's laughter. He was standing there, waiting for Gogol to catch up, putting out a hand as Gogol drew near. 
"Try to remember it always, he said once Gogol had reached him, leading him slowly back across the breakwater ... "Remember that you and I made this journey, that we went together to a place where there was nowhere left to go."

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Beautiful Truths?

I've recently been reading Ann Patchett's Truth and Beauty (2004).  It's a memoir about her friendship with Lucy Grealy, the poet and author of Autobiography of a Face (1994).  I blogged about Grealy's book this time last year ("Worlds of Unknowing")--it's a really interesting (but intense) memoir.

Patchett's memoir is a book a colleague recently mentioned to me.  I won't say she "recommended" it, because quite frankly, she didn't.  I told her I was teaching Grealy's memoir in a class this semester, and she asked me if I had read Patchett's book.  I hadn't.

What I did know was that Grealy's family was extremely angry when Patchett's book was released, and I had read Suellen Grealy's expression of this anger and grief.  When I mentioned that to my colleague, she said, "They were angry with good reason.  That book did unnecessary things."

Patchett wrote the book quickly, after Lucy Grealy died of a heroin overdose in 2002.  As Suellen Grealy points out, in order to do this, she had to obtain the rights to publish Lucy's letters.  Patchett did this in the immediate aftermath of her friend's funeral, a move that many would attribute to a writer's need to cope with grief via art, but that others (including the Grealy family) would eventually come to see as ambitious and self-serving on Patchett's part.

In addition to feeling that Patchett's account of their sister's life did Lucy Grealy a serious disservice, members of the Grealy family felt that their grief was overlooked in a rush to capitalize on Lucy Grealy's life and tragic death.  They are largely absent from Patchett's account of Grealy's life; Patchett's own family, however, is mentioned in connection with Grealy and her friendship on multiple occasions--it is Patchett's mother, for example, who tells her to save all of Lucy's letters, because the two of them will be famous someday.

Patchett's book makes me uncomfortable.  That's the only way I can express it.  It seems to me to be in somewhat poor taste, given the speed with which it was written and the timing of its publication, but it's more than that.

It reminds me of Hemingway's account of his "friendship" with Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast and of Truman Capote's literary manuevers with his own "friends."

My mom used to remind me, when I was growing up, of a social convention that has apparently fallen by the wayside in contemporary American culture, "Don't speak ill of the dead."  She wouldn't tolerate gossip or snarky comments about the deceased, and if someone seemed to be about to stray  into that dangerous discursive territory (or if she was at risk of doing it herself), she'd quietly taper off and leave it alone.

My dad behaved very similarly: the sense seemed to be, the person had had a life, and s/he may not have lived or behaved in a way that the rest of us approved of, but given that the person had died, it was no longer fair to comment on or criticize the terms on which the person had lived that life.  The implication was, it was disrespectful to only savor the bad memories, and I think, that it was dirty pool.

Perhaps the person might have changed, might have done things to redeem him- or herself, had s/he lived.  My mom would say, "Would you want to be remembered for the bad things you'd done?  No.  Of course not."

In this age of the tell-all book and the made-for-TV movie, such comments seem naive, I know.

Patchett's memoir doesn't simply remember the bad moments of Grealy's life.  I think it does a more insidious thing: it purports to memorialize Lucy Grealy's strength and her personality, but it does so by means of what used to be known as "left-handed compliments" (my apologies to the lefties out there).

When Patchett seems to be praising Grealy, a closer look reveals that her compliments aren't necessarily flattering--in many cases, they're definitely double-sided (at best).  The memoir is subtitled "A Friendship," but I don't think it actually is the memoir of a friendship: instead, it memorializes what a good friend Ann Patchett (allegedly) was to Lucy Grealy.

That distinction is key, in my opinion.  Much of Patchett's account seems designed to cause the reader to sigh and marvel at Ann's devotion, Ann's patience, Ann's understanding.  Because Lucy is represented as narcissistic and overwhelmingly needy, insensitive and insecure.

And maybe she was all of those things.  And maybe Patchett has earned her crown in heaven for putting up with all of that.  But I think that, if that's the case, Patchett made her own choices and glorifying that aspect of their "friendship" does a serious disservice to Grealy's memory.

Grealy can't tell her side of the story.  Patchett seems to suggest that, even if she were alive, Grealy wouldn't tell it--she'd be too self-involved with her own life and artistry to consider it worth telling.

As I said, it reminds me of Hemingway's depictions of F. Scott Fitzgerald: near the end of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway recounts an elliptical conversation that he and Scott Fitzgerald (allegedly) had about... the size of their penises.

What better testimony to the bond of male friendship, right?  Except that Hemingway depicts Scott Fitzgerald as extremely worried: his wife, Zelda, had recently had an affair (according to Hemingway) and allegedly dropped hints that Scott Fitzgerald might not measure up.  So of course, Fitzgerald asks his good buddy "Hem," for his advice.

Hemingway checks and reassures Fitzgerald he has nothing to worry about, then gives him some advice about pillow-usage and other manly strategies for self-aggrandizement.

Hemingway similarly represents a scene in which he overhears Gertrude Stein (who was a lesbian) begging another woman for... we never know what, exactly.  Or do we?

For me, this is the mark of a tacky tell-all and the mark of a bad friend.  If these episodes really occurred (and I'm by no means convinced that they did), why would a friend feel compelled to recount them to the public at large?

Patchett does similar things--insinuations are made about Grealy's sex life (in particular, her promiscuity) and its motivations, episodes of sobbing self-doubt are recounted in unnecessary detail and at some length.

Why?  To publish what you think you know about another person's sex life and to do so after that person has died, is 1) to invade a region of intimacy that you have no business invading (and that you may not know as well as you think you do), and 2) to violate the terms of friendship itself.

If Grealy wanted to broadcast details--even if she did so throughout her entire life--that was her prerogative.  It is not, in my opinion, Patchett's, and to presume to do so in the wake of her friend's death is not at all beautiful, even if it all just happens to be true.

Sunday, November 17, 2013


I'd say that it's been a busy week, but given that this is the umpteenth time I've disappeared from my blog for a week over the past several months, you already know that.

But it was a good week.  Lots of meetings to go to, which are never my favorite thing, but I also gave a little lecture on Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and a colleague gave me some suggested reading: Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

I'm always happy when people give me more reading to do.  At this moment, however, my fear is that I'm going to commit myself to giving another conference presentation and that I'll foolishly choose to talk about Gabriel Garcia Marquez, about whom I know next to nothing, except that I really, really did not like Love in the Time of Cholera, and that, at the time when it was popular, I seemed to be the only one who felt that way.

Speaking of being the only one who feels a certain way about certain things, I've recently begun to notice the absurdity of... perfume.  

Don't get me wrong, I like nice smells and I like to smell nice (although I haven't actually worn perfume in quite a few years at this point).

But what has recently struck me is how perfume is no longer really about smell, actually.  Case in point: I was walking to Target this morning and had to pass a Bath and Body Shop.  I haven't been in a Bath and Body Shop in about a decade, and I must say, it's unlikely I'll enter one again anytime soon.

There was a huge ad for "Forever Midnight."  I guess it's some body fragrance based on the Twilight series--it had a picture of Bella in her wedding dress and that good-looking young man whose name I can never remember--not the werewolf-guy, the vampire-guy that she went to high school with...  wait, EDWARD!  That's it.  I remember now.  Edward.  Him.

Anyway, I looked at this poster for a long minute and began to chuckle.  Because all I could think was, "What do vampires in heat smell like?  Do I want to smell like that?"

I quickly reprimanded myself for being disrespectful to the great love of Bella and Edward: they're vampires in LOVE, of course.  Because Bella and Edward waited until they were married before they had sex and she became a vampire (which is really not at all typical for vampires, actually).

In retrospect, it's a wonder I survived the whole Twilight phenomenon.  I truly thought they were joking sometimes, and I kept waiting for it to be revealed that yes, in fact, it was all a satire of something.  (I was never sure what it could be satirizing, but I was willing to learn.)  

I saw the first film in the series and then I also saw the second one, but I dozed a bit during the second one (I saw both on DVD).  The person I saw them with fell totally asleep during the second one and then asked me what it was about, so I summarized:

"That girl, Bella, started hanging out with that guy--the one who doesn't ever wear a shirt--and they were, like, fixing dirt-bikes together because the other guy, whatshisname, Edward, kind of disappeared, and then they got the dirt-bikes fixed so they rode them a lot, and there was all kinds of sexual tension because that guy really doesn't wear a shirt EVER, if he can help it, and he's got a nice chest, and Bella couldn't help but notice that--and he likes her too, of course.  So anyway, that happened or was "in the air" between them, but then they didn't really do anything, because she loves Edward, and then things happened and there were a lot of people literally flying through the air in a field--I think during a vampire baseball-game, actually--and then there were a lot of people wearing red (this was the point at which I intermittently dozed off).  Anyway, some of the people in red seemed really angry about something that I wasn't quite clear about, but apparently it had been "going on for centuries" and Edward was not comfortable with it, but he acknowledged that it was a tradition and all, and then there was some kind of ritual or something and then it was over and Bella and Edward were together again, but they agreed that they'd hold off on having sex and transforming her into a vampire until after she finished high school because otherwise her mom and dad would get upset.  So they aren't going to have sex for at least another year or so, because she's a junior, I think."

He laughed and told me how "clever and funny" I was.  I told him, "No, you don't understand.  THAT WAS ACTUALLY THE MOVIE."

So I thought about that on my walk, and it was all kind of bittersweet, because I saw both of those movies with a guy I briefly dated that I'm not even friends with anymore, and that's always kind of a downer, when you see something that reminds you of someone you once liked who wasn't very nice to you in the end.

You wonder how you're even supposed to feel about the memory now, and you're a little bit pissed off that 1) you remember it and it was funny, and 2) the person ruined it all for you, lock, stock, and barrel, by being a jerk.  It seems like you aren't even supposed to remember it anymore, much less chuckle about it, but you do, and then you feel conflicted, like you're betraying yourself and in the end, you're just kind of annoyed that they made a Twilight perfume when all of that crap was over with years ago.

Anyway, reeling from this perfume ad and all it wrought in my life, I nevertheless actually made it into Target and shifted gears, mentally, or so I thought, until I walked past another perfume ad.

This one was for "Justin Bieber's Girlfriend."

I confess, I once again chuckled.  Because I really don't know what Justin Bieber's girlfriend smells like, and I couldn't quite imagine ever wanting to describe myself as smelling like "Justin Bieber's Girlfriend."  (I guess it would be worse if I smelled like his mom?)  

Anyway, the point I reached in all of my musings about this is that it is truly absurd.  We're being sold things that make NO sense and that we can't possibly need, and being forced to watch movies that aren't really that intelligent or good because no one will make anything worth watching anymore.  It's as simple as that.  We have perfumes based on bad-- but popular--movies and we have perfumes based on the hypothetical girlfriends of bad--but popular--teen-idols.  Because this is how we want to smell, apparently.

Why?  I don't know.  No walk will ever be long enough for me to figure that one out.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Getting Comfortable

There's something about settling in for the winter.

Don't get me wrong: I love spring and fall and the warmer weather.  Nothing beats being able to head outside without a jacket and go for a bike ride or a swim.

But once you face facts and realize, you live on the East Coast and winter will come, it really can be an enjoyable time.

So that's what this past week has been all about: getting settled for the winter.

The week actually didn't start off all that promisingly.  I started to feel a bit under the weather on Saturday night, and (foolishly) took an OTC decongestant.  It kept me up ALL night, in one of those medicine-head fitful states of non-sleep.

Guess it was the "non-drowsy" kind.  Because the non-non-drowsy kind puts me out cold for 12-14 hours, typically.  (This is what I was shooting for.)

Along about 3 a.m., however, I decided to make a virtue of necessity.  (Remember, it was daylight savings time, so this meant I got an extra hour of non-sleep that night.)  I decided that, if I couldn't sleep, I would doze and compose.  So I mentally thought through the sentences of the abstract I needed to write for an upcoming conference paper, until I dozed off again.  The abstract only had to be 100 words, so it was the perfect length to work on.  And at a few points, when I was just flat-out awake, I opened the iPad and read.

The next morning, I got up and wrote the abstract in an hour, and submitted it.  So, one job done.  With a little luck, I'll be heading to NYU next spring for a few days to present my ideas.  We'll see.

I didn't feel all that great on Sunday, what with the not-sleeping-thing, so I decided it was time to make some comfort food and get comfortable.

Several years ago, when I was on sabbatical and living in RI, I had a dinner party for my 40th birthday.  I've had various dinner parties over the years.  Some went quite well, some went less well, but I do enjoy giving them and I think most people enjoyed attending them (even the less successful ones).

Because, truth be told, I love to cook for people.  I don't know why.  I just do.  (Unless you're a jerk to me, of course, in which case I'll happily advise you of the location of the nearest Denny's and leave it at that.) 

This dinner party was one of my successes.  All kinds of good food and good conversation and just a generally enjoyable evening all around.  A perfect way to ring in my fourth decade.  It was during a tough time in my life in general (two years after my dad had died, two years before my mom died), so I savor my memory of that time, because it was a little emotional oasis in a sea of turmoil.

I made an apple-cake for that occasion that has since become one of my favorite cake recipes of all time.  Last week I decided, I had the fresh-picked apples, so what better way to use the Granny Smiths than by taking a little cake-walk down memory lane?

I probably should have taken a picture of the cake, but I didn't.  I just baked it and started eating.  I'm still enjoying it.  The temptation to eat it all in one sitting was nearly overwhelming, but I resisted.

I decided to continue the comfort-food theme on Sunday.  I have a recipe for homemade chicken pot pie that is beyond good, but it is also beyond time-consuming to make.  It consists of about 18 steps and until you get the hang of it, it can very well seem to involve the simultaneous use of absolutely every single pot and pan that you possess. 

But god is it good.  The best.  (Again, my apologies to the vegetarians.  I know.  I know.  But... it really is good.  I'm sorry.  It just is.)

So, about every year or two, I saddle up and make it.  And then I spend a week or so eating it.  Needless to say, this is the kind of week that will require regular trips to the gym and the pool, but it's soooo worth it.

The filling.

The filling, topped with crust and brushed with egg.  Ready to bake.

The end result: pure comfort.

While making the pot pie, I once again made a virtue of necessity.  Since you have to poach the chicken in vegetables and then use only the meat, I took the opportunity of putting the bones and vegetables in a pot with herbs and water and boiled it all for the remainder of the day.  So I  now have homemade chicken broth, ready to use for my next batch of Italian wedding soup.

And of course, all of this did the trick, and I felt much better.  The remainder of the week was spent getting the odds and ends done before the holiday busy-season hits.  I graded a small stack of papers.  I vacuumed.  I did laundry.  I caught up on various reading and writing projects for school.  I mulched leaves like a madwoman.

And I started to think about Christmas gifts.  My neighbors have been such great neighbors: she helps me with gardening advice, invites me to incredible dinners (she's a good cook), he helped me clean up my yard one winter after a major storm, the list just goes on and on.

Her daughter had a baby this year, so I'm thinking of a knitted sweater for the little grandson, to say "thank you!!!" for all of their kindness and help.

I started working on that this week, and although it's not in a condition to be photographed (if you saw it right now, you might wonder how it will ever turn out to be a sweater), I can't resist a little teaser.

These are the buttons I'll be using.  I'm not usually a sucker for cutesy-kid-things, but I do like these little buttons.  They're cute, but in a very understated way (like me! LOL).  And I think they'll look really good on the sweater itself.

So I'm enjoying that knitting project a great deal.  And, in an odd twist of fate, after all of the problems and struggles I had with the garden this year, even now, as I spend time mulching leaves all over the yard and covering plants and generally getting ready for winter, this is what greets me when I come inside:

Yup.  That's right.  I brought in a TON of green tomatoes that just wouldn't ripen and wouldn't ripen and WOULDN'T RIPEN out in the yard.

Finally, they were predicting a frost.  My neighbor (see above) advised me to bring them in.  She told me that if I did, and put them someplace warm but not in the sun, they would ripen.

Well, I tried that last year, and it was a bust.  But for some reason, this year, it's working.  (I think because I put them in a place that gets more light, but still isn't in the sun.  That may be key to this whole process.)  Anyway, they're ripening little by little, and it's actually working out really well for me, because instead of having a ton of them all at once, I'm getting a manageable batch every week that I can use in salads and on pasta and in omelettes.

So yes, it's November, and I'm eating fresh tomatoes from the garden.  Still.  Just goes to show: you never can tell what the future will hold.

"We will only understand the miracle of life fully when we allow the unexpected to happen."
--Paulo Coelho

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Light in the Leaves

I just watched the sunset.  I love an autumn sunset, because of the way the sunlight plays on the leaves.

If there had to be a day extended by an hour, today was the day.  I did all kinds of yard work, followed by a bike ride made all the more glorious by the fact that it's probably the last bike ride I'll be able to take in a tank-top for some time to come.

I savored every moment.  I imagined what it will feel like to do it again in the spring, after a cold winter.  I guess you could say I enjoyed it in both the present and the future.

I made my favorite apple cake, with the fresh-picked apples I got the other day.  It was my belated treat for my own birthday, and a treat for the birthdays of others in my life.  Today would have been my mom's 79th birthday, and it's my best friend's daughter's 8th birthday.  So it's been a good day, all around.

I've been downloading a ton of French novels.  I have an idea for a comparative lit. course on the 19th-century novel in France and Russia that I'm beginning to contemplate.  It would be a blast to teach, and an even greater blast to prepare for.

I'm working on my article on Moby-Dick, and feeling pretty good about how it's shaping up.  I need to revise and resubmit it, and I'd really like to have that done before the holidays.

Because believe it or not, I'm already thinking about my plans for the holidays: where I'll be, what I'll be up to.

I don't have a lot to say tonight, actually.  I'm just in a good mood, and  I've just been basking in the day, and now I'm looking forward to spending the evening in peace and love.  As it should be.