Saturday, June 28, 2008

Official

From the Northfield News.

I met briefly with a reporter for the Northfield News yesterday to have my picture taken and to answer a couple of quick questions about my run for school board. Mostly, we talked about writing poetry. Last night, Clara and I went with a friend down to the Cow for the first annual Junebug Music Festival. While we listened to Meredith Fierke and Peter's friends threw popcorn at each other, I had a brief chat with current school board member Wendy Smith (who isn't running for a third term), who told me that it was good that I wasn't running on a specific personal agenda—such as resentment that my son was locked out of Advanced British Literature because the enrollment limit was reached. Actually, that doesn't bother me too much. Will went off to England with Ernest Hemingway and Chinua Achebe in his backpack. If he enjoys reading and can be a self-directed learner, it doesn't concern me too much if he misses out on a couple of advanced courses in high school. There are plenty of students who are really struggling in school. Those are the students we need to be concerned about. As a candidate for school board, I can't think of our public schools as a tax-supported prep school for my college-bound kids; I have to think of it as an institution of democracy. I've seen advantages from Will not being in all of the advanced classes. He's made friends that he wouldn't otherwise have made, from backgrounds different from his own. That's an important part of education, too. American society shouldn't be sorted into the elitist and the anti-intellectual. Public education should prevent that from happening.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Our House: Before & After

August 15, 2007

June 27, 2008

Cedar Lodge

On Sunday (our nineteenth anniversary), Clara and I will be driving with Peter, his friend Connor, and the idiot puppy to the eastern Upper Peninsula. The journey is about 550 miles and takes between ten and twelve hours—across Wisconsin (through Chippewa Falls, Wausau, Antigo, and Marinette) and the western U.P. (through Menominee, Escanaba, and other points along Route 2) to the little villages of Hessel and Cedarville, about an hour south of Sault Ste. Marie. In Hessel, we'll take a boat to an island three miles off-shore in Lake Huron, where we'll spend the next three weeks. (Click photographs to enlarge.)

The western half of the island was purchased by Clara's great- grandfather in the first years of the twentieth century. He was the founder of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, and the business was booming. In Akron, he built himself and his large family a stunning Tudor Revival manor house; on the island, he built a set of beautiful Adirondack style buildings (shown here in an early photograph) where five generations of his family have spent their summers. Last summer, when we were in England, was the only summer in 20 years in which I haven't spent at least a week on the island; for several summers during the late 1990s and early 2000s, we regularly spent as many as six weeks on the island. Ah, the academic lifestyle!

Built by a millionaire, Cedar Lodge has been passed down to a bunch of teachers who don't have enough money to maintain the buildings in their original style. The porch roofs are covered with moss, and nearly everything is patched together by liberal arts graduates. The old tennis court is overgrown with cedars. There's always plenty of work to keep us busy each summer: dock repairs, roof repairs, cutting firewood, etc. The work begins with opening: setting up the solar-powered pump and getting the water running; lowering the motorboat into the water, hooking up the marine battery, and getting the boat running; removing shutters (behind most of which there are little brown bats lurking); starting the water heaters and refrigerator. When all that is done, if it doesn't send me into emergency surgery for a strangulated hernia, I plan to sit and read Sophocles' Antigone, finish Margery Sharp's Rhododendron Pie, and start Bill McKibben's Deep Economy.

We're "off the grid" on the island. The only electricity is supplied by a solar-charged battery that runs the water pump and by a gas generator that runs the washing machine. No telephone, no television, no light switches. At night, we light up kerosene mantle lamps. The pump fills the toilets with water from Lake Huron. Our drinking water is lake water run through a ceramic filter system. The moonless nights are very dark, but there are often shooting stars and Northern Lights.

Clara's Mom will be with us the entire time, and we'll have a few visitors: a boatload of friends from Louisville, Kentucky; a friend of Clara's from high school; a freshwater biologist gathering samples of local crayfish for her research. For most of the time, it'll be just us and the birds: redstarts, cormorants, ducks, gulls and terns, thrushes, yellow-rumped warblers galore. Most of the island is under a conservation easement, and covered with a beautiful cedar forest, carpeted with moss, and embroidered with twinflowers. It's one of my favorite places on the planet.

You can read my essay about playing catch with Will on the island in the Northfield Arts Guild Writers' Night e-zine All in the Family (Fall 2004), available for download (.pdf format) here. The essay begins on page 15). A slightly longer version of the essay appeared in the New Letters special baseball issue in 2002.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Fledgling

Yesterday evening, we drove Will up to the airport for his flight to London. We helped him navigate the e-ticket machines, where he swiped his passport and received his boarding pass and checked his luggage. Then we watched him go through security and disappear into the secure area in search of the G concourse. Neither of us cried, but I was left with a hollow feeling inside. This is his first solo trip. He's just over two months shy of seventeen, but of course I can remember when I could hold his little head in the palm of my hand and his tiny legs dangled around my elbow. It seems like just last week that I had to spend hours everyday bouncing him on my shoulder, walking circles around the dining room table to get him to fall asleep. Now he's thousands of miles away.

He called a few minutes ago from my sister-in-law's house in Warwickshire. He had a smooth trip, with nothing worse than a lot of waiting around to deplane and clear passport control at Heathrow.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Rare Books

I'm currently reading Rhododendron Pie, the first novel by British novelist Margery Sharp (1905-1991). Sharp is best known in the United States for her series of children's books about The Rescuers, which were the basis for a pair of Disney animated films. In all, she wrote twenty-seven novels between 1930 and 1977, and fourteen books for children—most of them featuring the heroic mice Bernard and Miss Bianca. Rhododendron Pie is a charming and beautifully-written first novel, featuring a very sympathetic heroine, Ann Laventie, who is both proud of and slightly out of place in her eccentric family. She feels slightly ashamed of her ordinary concerns, like whether she's putting on weight, and disguises her weight loss book in the dust jacket of a Librairie Hachette edition. She reads only two languages to her father's five. She is quiet and polite in company, not all urbanity and sarcastic wit like the rest of her family, and is the only one of the family who truly makes friends with her neighbors. It's impossible not to love her, but for some reason the British publishers of Rhododendron Pie, Chatto and Windus, printed only about 1,500 copies. Margery Sharp went on to become a bestselling author (The Nutmeg Tree and Cluny Brown are perhaps her best-known adult novels), but her first novel was never reprinted. There is now only one copy available on Amazon.com, priced at $1,800!

Another rare book (though rather less rare) that I actually own is the Virago Modern Classics paperback edition of Rachel Ferguson's The Brontës Went to Woolworths. I bought my copy from Amazon.co.uk last year for £7. Currently on Amazon.com, there are eight copies available, ranging in price from $57 to $167 dollars. On Amazon.co.uk, there are five copies starting at £165.

Until recently, it was also difficult, if not impossible, to obtain a copy of Winifred Holtby's novel The Crowded Street (1924). But earlier this year it was reissued by London's Persephone Books, which rediscovers and reprints forgotten books by twentieth-century women authors. Persephone Books has also reprinted Rachel Ferguson's Alas, Poor Lady, but hasn't rescued the Brontës from their high-priced oblivion. Part of the reason may have to do with the personal tastes of Persephone's founder, Nicola Beauman. Several years ago (2005) I asked her if she would consider reprinting Rhododendron Pie, but she confessed to me that she isn't "a complete fan of Margery Sharp."

Persephone Books is not the only British publisher reissuing rare and out-of-print books. Virago recently acquired the rights to reprint, as Virago Modern Classics, a pair of novels by Stella Gibbons, whose most famous novel, Cold Comfort Farm, has remained in print since 1932. But other of her books remain rare and expensive; for example, The Matchmaker (1949), of which four copies are available on Amazon, starting at $80.

Another British publisher, Faber and Faber, has started a new imprint, Faber Finds, which "aims to restore to print a wealth of lost classics." Faber Finds is also soliciting suggestions for titles to add to their list. And here in the United States, New York Review Books is reissuing its own series of lost classics, and is also soliciting recommendations from readers. Perhaps there is still hope for Rhododendron Pie, but I'm not holding my breath. For now, I'll savor my temporary possession of the slightly brittle copy from the Lawson-McGhee Library in Knoxville, Tennessee, which I obtained through Interlibrary Loan.

What rare, out-of-print books would you like to see in print again? Let me know in the comments.

From the comments:
Jim H. suggests Richard Brautigan's Please Plant This Book (one copy on Amazon for $1,250) and The Galilee Hitchhiker (one copy on Amazon for $1,500).

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Declaratio, Part II

Soundtrack: open this link in another tab and enjoy The Fratellis' "Lupe Brown" while reading today's Rough Draft posts.

My surgery is scheduled for the morning of Thursday, July 24—one month from today. Between now and then, I'll be spending three weeks on an island in Lake Huron, near the little village of Hessel in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The only power on the island is provided by a pair of solar panels that run the water pump and a gas generator that occasionally runs the washing machine. As a result, this blog will be dormant from June 29 until July 22. Meanwhile, those of you who live in Northfield can start spreading the word that I'll be a candidate for school board in the November election. I'll undoubtedly come up with some kind of statement when I return from vacation/general anaesthesia, but for now you can read about how I failed as a middle school Latin teacher.* This piece originally appeared in Classical Journal and is available online at Susan Ohanian's website. While it chronicles the one notable failure of my teaching career, it also says a lot about what's important to me in public education. (And yes, Shan, it's about my experience in a certain posh suburb.)

*Note: there are some proofreading and formatting errors in the online version of my essay; you can make a game out of substituting the proper punctuation for the ubiquitous question marks.

Reading Journal: "Diary of a Provincial Lady"

E.M. Delafield, Diary of a Provincial Lady. Originally published in 1931.
N.B. Must try to remember that Social Success is seldom the portion of those who habitually live in the provinces. No doubt they serve some other purpose in the vast field of Creation—but have not yet discovered what.

Recently finished reading E.M. Delafield's Diary of a Provincial Lady. Do not feel quite up to the task of writing a full-scale review, so will refer the reader to Jilly Cooper's excellent appreciation in the Guardian. How to describe the book, which first appeared as a serial in the English magazine Time and Tide? Imagine the diary of Jane Austen, married, with two children, and living in P.G. Wodehouse country. The diarist's gruff husband, seen mostly sitting behind a copy of the Times, is land agent for Lady Boxe. The household includes cook, housemaid, gardener, and French governess for six-year old Vicky; son Robin is away at boarding school. The Provincial Lady's daily trials include difficulty of retaining servants in country, failure of forced bulbs, shortage of funds, unfashionable dress length for visit to London, insensitivity and superiority of Lady Boxe, a case of measles, inadequate skills as tennis player. She lives in a social milieu unfamiliar to most people, yet everything about the Provincial Lady's character rings so perfectly true. Most of us (well-educated and slightly anxious members of the middle class) will recognize a little of ourselves in her. With humor and insight, with a true-to-life mixture of self-deprecation and vanity, she tries to make a meaningful life for herself in the midst of her limited surroundings. This year, she resolves to keep a careful record of the progress of her paperwhite bulbs. This year perhaps they will bloom.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Second Opinion

I went back to the surgeon for a follow-up today, and this time he felt a definite hernia. He wants me to schedule surgery. I am not happy.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Limited Engagement

Until this Saturday, June 28, you can read my poem "To the Daughter I Never Had" online on the Rattle website. The poem originally appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of Rattle, a poetry magazine published in Studio City, California. Each week, the website features a new set of poems from a previous issue.

Declaratio

I'll be undergoing one of my intermittent spasms of gainful employment in the coming academic year, as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics at Carleton College. Who knows what effect this will have on blogging. In the fall, you may have to endure my random thoughts on Sophocles' Antigone, which I'll be reading with the students in Greek 204. In the winter term I'll be teaching my favorite course, Beginning Latin. At left is the Carleton College seal, which features both Greek and Latin, an explanation of which can be found here. The great American tradition of seals with Latin mottoes has recently been continued by Barack Obama, who this week debuted an official-looking seal sporting the Latin motto vero possumus: "Yes, We Can!"

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Seven Songs Meme/Musical Crush of the Week

“List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they're not any good, but they must be songs you're really enjoying now, shaping your spring. Post these instructions in your blog along with your 7 songs. Then tag 7 other people to see what they're listening to.”

1. Tift Merritt, "Broken" Everything about Tift Merritt is beautiful.

2. Michelle Branch, "Everywhere" Michelle Branch was eighteen when her debut album, The Spirit Room, was released in 2001. I first heard her when she appeared on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, singing "Goodbye to You" at the end of the episode "Tabula Rasa" (November 13, 2001). On the strength of that appearance, I bought her album and fell in love with its catchy, guitar-heavy pop songs. I recently rediscovered the album, and can sometimes be found dancing around and singing along with Michelle in a strained voice ("I don't care what they're saying, as long as I'm your girl...") while loading the dishwasher.

3. Sister Hazel, "All for You" A perennial summer favorite, impossible not to sing along to.

4. Alison Krauss and Union Station, "New Fool" About ten years ago, on a beautiful summer day, we drove through Marinette, Wisconsin, with this song playing on the car's CD player. The song became permanently associated in our minds with the excitement of crossing into the U.P., and it's become a ritual to cue it up on the CD player and sing along as we drive through Marinette each summer.

5. Ben Folds, "Landed" Any list of songs that I listen to regularly has to include Ben Folds. When Will is home, he can usually be found at the piano, playing something by Ben Folds, often shifting from one song to another in mid-song. Regulars to this blog will know that we saw Ben Folds live at Gustavus Adolphus College in April. Will's heading off to visit friends in England in a week, and part of his three-week stay will include another Ben Folds concert in Nottingham in early July. Check out Will's own efforts as a Ben Folds wannabe. Scroll down in the player and click on the song "Juli O'Callaghan" for some Foldsian piano rock.

6. the bird and the bee, "Polite Dance Song" Of course, much of what I listen to is what Peter is listening to in the family room with his friends as they play Legend of Zelda. I actually quite like this song, and the video is a hoot. This is what I look like when I'm dancing in the kitchen! More often, though, what I hear is Hilltop Hoods' "The Nosebleed Section," which Peter's friend Tom is obsessed with, or The Format's "The First Single," which Peter once accidentally put on repeat and and left playing in his bedroom while he was out.

7. The Be Good Tanyas, "Ootischenia" I can't get enough of this song. For a better video, check out the Tanyas live, performing "Scattered Leaves." Frazey Ford (vocals), Samantha Parton (mandolin), and Trish Klein (acoustic guitar) are my Canadian Musical Crushes of the Week.



I was tagged by Penny. Now, who shall I tag? I already know what Kookiejar is listening to! What about you, Shan? Chris? If anyone else wants to come forward, be my guest—or hit me with some tunes in the comments.

Bonus song: Erykah Badu, "Honey" I challenge you to sit still while listening to this song.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Reading Journal: "The Bluest Eye"

Toni Morrison's first novel (1970) is brutally beautiful. She creates a kind of genealogy of brutality, showing how it's passed down from from white to black, from parent to child, finally settling on the head of the weakest and most innocent: a little girl. Pecola Breedlove is eleven, and in the eyes of the world and in her own eyes her blackness makes her ugly. She wishes for a miracle that will give her blue eyes. Pecola is the ultimate victim, but those who victimize her are victims, too—victims of past brutality, victims of hopelessness, victims of self-hatred. Even love—the thing that Pecola wants the most, that she believes blues eyes will give her—is deformed by brutality and self-hatred. It's a hard novel, but an important one that should not be missed. Morrison refuses to slip into easy judgment of her characters, even those who are violent and mean and commit unforgivable acts, because she knows where that violence and meanness comes from. She sees inside her characters the innocence and vulnerability that become warped by living a hard life in a racist society.

The Bluest Eye is about seeing: seeing beauty and ugliness, accepting society's images of beauty and ugliness. For these little black girls in 1941, Shirley Temple is the template of beauty; fair-haired, blue-eyed, universally-adored, she is everything that Pecola is not. Films—black-and-white projections of idealized images—are important in the novel. Pecola's mother, Pauline, goes through a period of soaking up movies at the local cinema, absorbing their ideas of beauty and love: "It was really a simple pleasure, but she learned all there was to love and all there was to hate." At one point in the novel, Pecola walks home with Maureen, a light-skinned girl who is popular and "cute." When she learns Pecola's name, Maureen asks, "Wasn't that the name of the girl in Imitation of Life?" Actually, the girl in that film is named Peola—the character is a light-skinned African-American girl who rejects her race and passes as white. The film reinforces the idea that blackness is ugly. (In reality, the actress who played Peola, Fredi Washington, refused—despite her light skin and green eyes—to "pass." She often had to wear dark make-up to play black roles, and eventually found it impossible to find work as a black actress.)

But a novel, despite Toni Morrison's stunning descriptive language, doesn't allow you to "see" as a film does. The reader is told that Pecola is ugly, but that physical ugliness is not constantly before the reader's eyes. What the reader "sees" is the fragile beauty of a human soul being cracked, like a mirror, by the weight of images. Pecola believes that if her eyes—"those eyes that held the pictures"—were different, were blue, the world would be different too.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Husband's Day

















Around here, Mother's Day usually ends up being Wife's Day and Father's Day usually ends up being Husband's Day. Not much action from the boys today, but Clara pulled out all the stops and cooked up a fabulous dinner, including my favorite green lasagna with fresh tomato and basil, and an appetizer of scallops (from Just Food Co-op) sautéed in olive oil, garlic, and fresh rosemary. She even made homemade spinach pasta for the lasagna. Clara is the best! In the photograph above, you can see the beautiful lasagna pan that was a wedding gift from Clara's best college friend Martha. Two weeks from today, on June 29, we will have had that pan for nineteen years. It's one of several wedding gifts that still get regular use around here.

Prairie Summer

















Thanks to a blog tip from Christopher, Clara and I walked in the Lower Arboretum yesterday afternoon and saw the brilliant display of penstemon blooming in the prairie. (Click the link to see Christopher's photo, which is much better than mine.) The trail along the river was entirely flooded—a foot deep in some parts—so we headed straight for the high ground of the upland prairie. In the photograph above, you can see the pale purple flowers and the Carleton wind turbine in the background. According to my field guide, Tallgrass Prairie Wildflowers, what we appear to have here is large-flowered beard tongue (penstemon grandifloris), which is a member of the snapdragon family. Unfortunately, we also encountered what appeared to be a serious infestation of tent caterpillars after the path entered the woods. Strangely, I didn't see any of the telltale "tents" in the trees along the path, but the ground—the path itself—was writhing with thousands of them. It was impossible to walk the path without stepping on them. Here's a brief description of a tent caterpillar infestation from Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye:

The caterpillars are everywhere in the woods, striped and bristly. They dangle from the branches on threads of silk, forming a hanging curtain you have to brush out of the way; they river along the ground like a rug come to life, they cross roads, turning to greasy mush under the tires of the logging trucks. The trees around are denuded, as if they've been burnt; webbing sheathes their trunks.


That's exactly how it was: the caterpillars were "river[ing] along the ground like a rug come to life." The photograph above shows just two of the thousands we had to step through on our walk. To recover from the grossness of it all, we had to beat a quick retreat to the Contented Cow for gin and tonics.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

A Driveway Moment

A quick storm blew in yesterday evening—the sky darkened, the wind whipped up, heavy rain fell—and then departed as quickly as it came, leaving in its wake a bright and fast-fading rainbow in the eastern sky. At ten o'clock, Will called and asked me to drive over and pick him up at his friend Ted's house. The car radio was tuned to Minnesota Public Radio and Radu Lupu playing Schubert's Piano Sonata in A Major. As we pulled into the driveway at home, Will commented, "This is really good." I stopped the car but left the radio on, and Will sat with me listening to the rest of the first movement. "Schubert," Will concluded, resorting to his own special frame of reference, "was the Ben Folds of classical music." When the movement was over, we got out of the car and stood for a moment under a clear sky full of brilliant stars and the glow of a waxing moon.

If you have about five and a half minutes to spare, click here for a video of pianist Sa Chen playing the first movement of Schubert's Piano Sonata in A Major, D. 664 in the final round of the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Unfortunately, Lupu's recording, which won a Grammy award in 1994, is now only available in the U.S. as an expensive ($34) import.

Where Have I Heard This Before?

In the 1828 Presidential election, the "National" Republican incumbent, John Quincy Adams, was pitted against the "Democratic" Republican candidate Andrew Jackson in a rematch of the contested 1824 election. In 1824, Jackson had won the popular vote, but didn't receive enough electoral votes to take home the prize, and the election was eventually decided by the House of Representatives. House Speaker Henry Clay helped engineer a decision in favor of Adams. As President, John Quincy Adams had an ambitious agenda of modern improvements, including the construction of interstate roads, the establishment of institutions of higher learning, enhanced international diplomacy, free trade agreements, and the adoption of the metric system. Few of his visionary projects got off the ground. Meanwhile, the Jacksonian opposition remained in permanent campaign mode.

In 1828, Adams was portrayed by his opponents as an elitist intellectual who lacked the common touch. The fact that he was a Unitarian raised suspicions among Christian voters. His opponent, Andrew Jackson, was portrayed as a true man of the people. But Jackson also had an interesting military record; as a military commander, he had suspended civil law, tried and executed prisoners without due process, and launched an invasion of a foreign territory (Spanish Florida) on false pretenses and without proper authorization. All this seemed to make him more popular. He took charge and stood by his guns.

Jackson won the 1828 election handily and swiftly proceeded to remove long-serving and often highly effective civil servants from their positions and replace them with political appointees. Jackson unabashedly instituted what came to be called "the spoils system" in government. Many of Jackson's appointees were incompetent and corrupt, and saw their offices as opportunities for personal gain rather than public service. But an effective federal government was not high on Jackson's list of priorities. He believed in a small federal government and a strong chief executive. Loyalty to Andrew Jackson himself was more important than competence in office; political patronage was more important than performance.

As part of his scheme to dismantle the increasingly well-oiled machine of federal government, Jackson launched an all-out war on the Bank of the United States, which had been one of the nation's chief sources of credit and financial stability. The BUS had been the brainchild of Alexander Hamilton, but in his campaign against it Jackson told Hamilton's own son that Hamilton "was not in favor of the Bank of the United States." As Daniel Walker Howe says in his magnificent history of the United States in the years 1815-1848: "For Jackson, such matters were issues not of fact, but of his authority." In pursuing his political agenda, he substituted his own will for reality.

To be continued...

Friday, June 13, 2008

Reading Journal: "Rumour of Heaven"

Beatrix Lehmann, Rumour of Heaven. Virago Modern Classics. First published in 1934. Reprinted in 1987.

Beatrix Lehmann, as she appeared on an episode of Doctor Who near the end of her life.

Rumour of Heaven
is a peculiar book. It begins with Miranda Mirova, the most celebrated ballerina of her age, and her husband, man of letters William Peacock, enjoying their status as the toast of London society. Then Miranda and William have a child, a daughter named Clare, and things change. Miranda and William retreat from society to mouldering Prince's Acre, a run-down rural estate near the sea in the south of England. Miranda craves obscurity. "We are not well hidden," she tells her children—beautiful Clare and her emotionally, mentally and physically stunted siblings Hector and Viola. Miranda descends deeper into madness, and then dies, leaving William shattered and Clare with the task of holding the lives of her siblings together. Hector lives like an animal, climbing trees and crawling along rabbit trails, easily startled and barely capable of speech. Viola obsessively reads and re-reads Wuthering Heights until she can no longer distinguish between fiction and reality. Meanwhile, three men arrive at Prince's Acre—a shell-shocked literary man; a painter; and an explorer who claims to have discovered an edenic unpopulated island in the South Pacific. It's difficult to make all of these elements work together: damaged eccentrics, Wuthering Heights, Shakespeare, a Cockney housekeeper whose speech is overgrown with transplanted haitches, and ideas about how death prepares fertile soil for new life and new creativity. Lehmann doesn't entirely succeed: the fragile eccentricity of her characters threatens to overwhelm their humanity; they become grotesques who generate little real sympathy.

Beatrix Lehmann published two novels, but she was better known as one of the finest stage actresses of her generation. As a novelist, she was overshadowed by her sister Rosamond Lehmann. Reading Rumour of Heaven, I could see the Shakespearean actress at work, mulling over themes from The Tempest and Twelfth Night—where else did she get the names Miranda and Viola for her characters?—as her emotionally shipwrecked characters fail to connect, fall in the love with the wrong people, and move through an oddly spellbound world of beauty and loss. And then there is the island—is it real or imaginary? There are interesting ideas percolating through the novel, but the odd and oversensitive characters remain too opaque to make the novel truly compelling.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Covers, Part II: Headless













Apparently, the headless woman has become a standard feature of book covers. According to a publishing insider, "designers often crop out the head so the reader can imagine her own face on top of a model-skinny body." Is this trend a book designer's innocuous pandering to female fantasies, or does it represent the objectification of women? Does the "model-skinny" headless woman of chick-lit book covers perpetuate unrealistic and unhealthy body image among young women? The trend is not, however, confined to chick-lit. It's spilled over onto the covers of literary fiction, as in the reprint of Alice Monro's collection of stories The View from Castle Rock (pictured above). But I'm pleased to say that I've located this woman's head. The cover of another collection of Munro's stories, Runaway, features a woman's bodyless head. Clearly we aren't meant to judge Alice Munro on the merits of a single collection of stories. We have to familiarize ourselves with the entire body of her work.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Musical Crush of the Week: Jolie Holland



Jolie Holland (recorded live in London)
"Crush in the Ghetto"
From Springtime Can Kill You (Anti 2006)

Cover















Left: Dorothy Baker, Cassandra at the Wedding. New York Review Books edition.
Right: Dorothy Baker, Cassandra at the Wedding. Virago Modern Classics edition.


Dorothy Baker's 1962 novel was dedicated to the painter David Park, one of whose paintings appropriately graces the cover of the NYRB edition. Virago Modern Classics, on the other hand, has decided to give Baker's novel a chick-lit make-over. Which cover do you find more appealing? Are women more likely to pick up a book—even a neglected classic like Cassandra at the Wedding—if it has a chick-lit cover?

Monday, June 9, 2008

A Retraction

Just when I was starting to have nightmares like the illustration at right (a medieval hernia operation), I had my appointment with a local surgeon, who poked and prodded and finally concluded that I didn't have anything remotely worth operating upon. Probably just a strain, a slight tear, and some inflammation. Big sigh of relief. Dr. R. looked like a soap opera doctor, and when, in the course of our conversation, he learned that I had trained as a classicist (before hitting the big time as a blogger), he promptly quoted the entire first line of the Aeneid. When was the last time a handsome man quoted Vergil to you, told you to drop your pants, and jabbed you repeatedly in the scrotum? Well, that was my day.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Sunday Do-Too-Much Dinner

Chicken and Artichoke Heart Manicotti
An original recipe by Rob Hardy

Shan took the past week off from her regular weekly blog feature, Tuesday Do-Little Dinners. To take up the slack, I present this one-time-only feature: Sunday Do-Too-Much Dinner.

Step 1. The chicken.

1. Marinate a pound of skinless, boneless chicken meat (breasts or thighs) in olive oil, the juice of half a lemon, oregano, two pressed garlic cloves, salt and pepper.
2. Make yourself a mojito and/or gin and tonic.
3. Grill the chicken pieces between thunderstorms while drinking above beverage.
4. Allow grilled chicken to cool. Shred or dice chicken and mix in a bowl with one jar of marinated artichoke hearts (drained and chopped), 1/4 cup grated parmesan, juice of half a lemon, 1/2 cup toasted bread crumbs, and one lightly beaten egg.

Step 2. The manicotti.

1. Add more rum, club soda, and ice to your mojito.
2. Cook manicotti according to package directions.

Step 3. The bechamel.

1. In a small saucepan, melt 2 Tbs. of butter, more or less.
2. Whisk in a heaping Tbs. of flour.
3. Whisk in 1 c. milk. Stir.
4. When this mixture has thickened, add a few Tbs. of grated parmesan.
5. Refresh your mojito and/or gin and tonic.

Step 4. Assemblage.

1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
2. Oil a 9x13 inch baking pan.
3. Stuff manicotti with chicken mixture and arrange in pan.
4. Spread bechamel over manicotti.
5. Bake in preheated oven for 20 minutes, or until the bechamel is lightly browned.
6. Serve with a green salad and white wine.

You have now dirtied most of the pots and pans in your kitchen, and you are much too drunk to clean up. Leave everything in the sink and go to bed.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Ruptured Poor

In the nineteenth century, benevolent societies were established on both sides of the Atlantic to relieve the pain and suffering of workers who, as the result of their strenuous jobs, developed hernias. In 1807, the National Truss Society was established in London "to relieve poor ruptured persons...by furnishing (under surgical direction) trusses for every kind of rupture, and bandages and necessary instruments for all cases of prolapsus; and by performing every necessary operation." The full name of the society was the National Truss Society for the Relief of the Ruptured Poor. An 1817 report from the London society estimated that "this malady exists in one person in eight through the whole male population of the kingdom," especially among the laboring classes. Weavers and boatmen, the report said, were particularly susceptible. In the previous year, the London society had relieved 2,610 members of the ruptured poor with charitable trusses. Pictured above is an elastic truss advertised in an 1879 issue of Scientific American. The truss was designed to press the protruding hernia back into the abdomen with a special ball-and-cup attachment, shown in the corner of the illustration. Trusses were advertised as a permanent cure for hernias. They weren't. Surgery is, unfortunately, the only means of permanently repairing a hernia.

An advertisement for a truss offering a "permanent cure" for hernias (1853)

American medical journals of the nineteenth century were full of accounts of successful hernia surgeries, and of new and improved treatments for hernia. As much as I dread the prospect of surgery, I have to admit it sounds better than having leeches applied to the groin: a standard medical treatment for hernia in the first half of the nineteenth century.

The topic of hernias in the nineteenth century would make an interesting historical study, bringing together the history of labor, private benevolence, medical and technological innovation, and—as the proliferation of truss advertisements suggests—marketing.

In Bruges

Warning: mild spoiler. After spending a weekend in Winchester with two bored teenage boys, watching the first half of Martin McDonagh's brilliant film In Bruges was like experiencing déjà vu. In the film, two Irish hit men, Ken and Ray (Brendon Gleeson and Colin Farrell), have been sent to the storybook medieval city of Bruges to cool their heels after a job gone tragically wrong. The more thoughtful and mature Ken wants to spend his time in Bruges quietly sightseeing, but young Ray is bored with the medieval churches and gingerbread houses along the picturesque canals of Bruges. Bored and haunted by what he's done. The film is an odd and effective mix of dark comedy, travelogue, and blood-drenched violence, touching on serious themes of damnation and redemption. In one crucial scene, Ken and Ray are in the Groeninge Museum in Bruges, mesmerized by Heironymus Bosch's surreal painting of the Last Judgment. In the end, the film becomes a kind of reenactment of Bosch's painting, as art and life, illusion and reality collide. Bruges is a perfect fairytale setting for the film. McDonagh, who also wrote the brilliant play The Pillowman, is well aware that fairy tales are often bloody and violent. McDonagh's film is, in some senses, Brothers Grimm meet Brothers Coen.

Bruges was the cradle of the Flemish school of painting, and the city where William Caxton in the fifteenth century printed the first book in English on his new printing press. Bruges was also the scene of a bloody massacre of French soldiers in the fourteenth century. Culture and violence walked side by side on those picturesque cobbled streets.

Some American moviegoers have taken offense at the stereotypical portrayal of elephantine American tourists in the film. Some Belgians have taken offense at the fact that the Belgians in the film are played by French actors. But McDonagh, with his background in theater, seems to be having fun with the idea of playacting, of mistaking image for reality and surface for substance. In the first half of the film, we hear the profanity-spewing Cockney voice of Harry, Ken and Ray's boss, on the phone; when we finally see Harry, we see that the voice belongs to the usually urbane Ralph Fiennes. And watch for Slovenian-born, British-trained, American actor Zeljko Ivanek in the film. McDonagh's Bruges is a storybook global village where stereotypes flourish, but often prove deceptive.

The film has a hauntingly beautiful score provided by Carter Burwell, who—surely no coincidence—has scored most of the Coen Brothers' films, including No Country for Old Men. The delicate piano score calls to mind the gracefully off-kilter piano pieces of Erik Satie, adding to the film's haunting and surreal atmosphere.

Friday, June 6, 2008

In Memoriam

Today would have been my father's 78th birthday. He was only 75 when he died—too young, but then longevity was never a family trait. He started to become ill about ten years ago, although we didn't recognize the symptoms at the time. It started with falling down. Gradually, he developed symptoms—difficulties with muscular control, with speech–that suggested either Parkinson's or Alzheimer's. In fact, what he actually had is often confused with those two diseases. He was eventually diagnosed with a degenerative disease called progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP).

He was born on June 6, 1930, in the small central New York village of Meridian. His father was an English teacher and the principal of the Cato-Meridian high school; his mother was also an English teacher and a school guidance counselor. She eventually became the first female high school principal in Cayuga County, New York. In Meridian, my father was a big fish in a small pond—the son of two community leaders, a local football star, an Eagle Scout. In college, at Cornell University, he found himself in a big pond. He was smart and ambitious, but socially inept. He lived at home with his parents until he was in his early thirties. At the beginning of each new school year, he would tag along with my grandmother to check out the new teachers at the school. This is how he met my mother, who arrived in Cato as a new kindergarten one fall in the early 1960s.

My father worked for over thirty years as a lawyer for the State of New York, ending his career as an administrative law judge for the state Department of Labor. When workers were denied unemployment compensation, he heard their appeals. His job meant that he traveled all over central New York armed with a dictaphone and a briefcase full of files. He provided for his family, but his work left him with little time and energy for parenting. I remember him dozing in front of the television, eating vast quantities of food, occasionally perking up to say something embarrassing to our friends.

Here's the poem about my father that appears in my chapbook, The Collecting Jar. I read it at his memorial service at the First Presbyterian Church of Ulysses in Trumansburg, New York (the town where I grew up and graduated from high school), in June 2006:

Aeneas

"I went downtown last night with Mother and Ellen. We got you a pair of gray pants at Edwards. They are a gray check. You may think they look a bit loud when you first see them, but remember that clothes don’t look as loud when worn as when off. They are a fine pair of pants and I’m sure you will like them. We also got you a literal translation of the Aeneid. Let us know how it helps out." (Letter from my grandfather to my father at Cornell University, October 19, 1948)

You were never loud, only worn and gray,
something passed along to us at birth, incidental
article of parentage—or so we always thought
when we saw you translated into a dead language
in our midst. Your epic was a series of small
upstate towns—Ulysses, Hector—allusions
in the landscape to some heroic faithfulness,
some checkered fabric of loss and hopefulness,
something not always appreciated at first sight.

How often the miles bled from your heart,
the highway your martyrdom, the landscape
indifferent behind its scrim of rain, kept awake
by the self-flagellation of the windshield wipers.
You came home to an absence that grew
until your return no longer filled it.

Exhaustion rubbed the nap from your easy chair,
wore away all the surfaces where we touched—
we watched you erode. If you were Odysseus,
where were your stories? There was no Circe,
no suitors, no Sirens: only the radio turned up
loud enough to keep you awake behind the wheel.

There was no war. We never went out to find you.

We never understood your sacrifice, always
exchanging love for duty, that estrangement
which we could never see as the price of your
devotion. If we seem to turn away, it is only
because you have given us this road, far-flung
sparks of smouldering Troy’s self-consuming fire.

Copyright © 2005 by Rob Hardy

Another poem about my father will appear in an anthology titled Beyond Forgetting: Poems and Prose About Alzheimer's, edited by St. Olaf graduate Holly Hughes and due out from Kent State University Press early in 2009 (as part of their ongoing Literature and Medicine series).

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Oversharing

In the May 25 New York Times Magazine, former Gawker editor Emily Gould wrote about her compulsive blogging—her habit of "oversharing" and spilling intimate details about her life and her relationships with men who didn't want to be blogged about. It's an interesting account of a private life coming apart on the internet. Ms. Gould had a particularly high blogging profile in Manhattan, attracting hundreds of hits and and dozens of comments each day. This blog averages about sixty visits a day, and few comments. If I overshare, few people will know. Not that I'm tempted to overshare. Who really wants to read about my incredibly dull and ordinary private life? Occasionally details will slip into the blog, but there really isn't all that much to share. Book reviews, poems, excursions, a little music—that's what this blog is about. According to Google Analytics, the most popular post on this blog is my poem about global warming, which is the #3 hit on Google when you search "global warming poem." People aren't coming here to read about my personal life.

That said, I'm aware that I did blog about the herniated disk in my neck. Poor me! I hate experiencing medical problems, I shrink from pain, and I pathetically reach out into cyberspace for sympathy and reassurance. Here I am again, telling you about the second big event in the Year of the Herniation. Yes, this time it's an actual hernia. Inguinal. If that isn't oversharing, what is? Last night I did the "turn-your-head-and-cough" for Dr. Behrens, and on Monday afternoon I meet with Dr. Rainiero, the surgeon, to find out about being cut open. Sympathy and reassurance welcome in the comments.

There. That's out of my system. I'll try not to moan and groan too much on this blog. I'll simply end with a word of advice: Bend with your knees, not your waist, when lifting heavy objects. And if you think you have a hernia, don't do a Google search for "hernia surgery." It'll only freak you out.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

This Week's Musical Crush: Laura Marling



Laura Marling, "My Manic and I"
From the album Alas I Cannot Swim (2008)
Thanks to Maggie for the recommendation.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Reading Journal: "The Town That Started the Civil War"


Nat Brandt,
The Town That Started the Civil War (Dell 1990).

This September marks the 150th anniversary of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue. In September 1858, slave hunters from Kentucky arrived in Oberlin, Ohio, to capture fugitive slave John Price. After apprehending Price in Oberlin, the kidnappers took him to nearby Wellington to catch a southbound train. News of the kidnapping spread quickly in Oberlin, and a large group of men, including black citizens of the town and Oberlin students, headed to Wellington to rescue Price. Oberlin had a reputation for abolitionism and resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law, and its citizens boasted that no black man had ever been returned to slavery from Oberlin. After a tense stand-off in Wellington, Oberlin made good on its boast and took Price from his captors and spirited him away into hiding—and eventually to freedom in Canada.

The trial of the Rescuers that followed pitted Oberlin—and its antislavery Republican allies in Ohio—against the Democratic, pro-slavery Buchanan administration in Washington. As the trial progressed, it attracted publicity to the cause of overturning the Fugitive Slave Law and the larger cause of abolishing slavery. One result of the trial was the addition of a "plank" condemning the Fugitive Slave Law to the Ohio Republican platform in 1860, something that contributed substantially to Lincoln's landslide victory in Ohio in that year's election. The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue galvanized support for abolition in Ohio, and in doing so pushed the nation closer to the Civil War.

Brandt's book is astonishingly detailed and well-documented, and does an excellent job of bringing out the individual personalities, the legal maneuvering, and the larger issues involved.

The Dundas Loop

One of my favorite short bike rides (about six miles total) in the Northfield area is the ride out to Dundas and back, returning on the section of the Mill Towns State Trail from Dundas to Sechler Park in Northfield. In Dundas, the trail passes through a small woodland which reminds me of England. I like to think of it as the Dundas Spinney, to give it an English-sounding name. Beyond the woods, the trail runs parallel to the railroad tracks and Armstrong Road, past the Northfield compost site, and across the tracks into Sechler Park, where when the boys were younger we spent so many hours watching Northfield Youth Baseball Association games at Malt-o-Meal Field.

Below are some photographs from the ride: the Dundas Spinney; phlox near the entrance to Sechler Park; Malt-o-Meal Field.


Monday, June 2, 2008

Brown Waterscorpion

Ranatra fusca

We thought we'd seen everything,
but more has excaped our notice:
like the water scorpion,
one of evolution's vanishing acts,

drifting like a bit of broken reed
among the wrack,
four thin legs graphed to its sides,
plotting the course of its impossible stride.

A needle with two needle eyes,
its snoutful of anaesthetic spit
can piece the flesh of fish or frog,
drawing out life like a syringe.

But how unsinister it looks,
propelled by the inept oarsmen of its legs,
eyes and feelers sitting up front
like fishermen with bent poles, trolling.

Cedar Lodge
July 23, 2005

Reading Journal: "The Summer Book"

Tove Jansson, The Summer Book. Originally published in Swedish in 1971. Reprinted, in English translation, in 2008. New York Review Books Classics.

A review, sort of.

The summer of 2004 was our first summer on the island without my father-in-law. It was strange and heartbreaking to find so much evidence of his presence there: notes he had left, instructions, projects he had left unfinished the summer before. At first, I felt I didn’t want to disturb the hammer or the ax from the places where he had left them. But life went on: there was firewood to split, new dock planks to hammer down.

The boys fought with each other and built forts in the woods. Two girls, Ella and Katie, visited the island and I taught them how to make bread. I watched birds—loons, goldeneyes, sandpipers, redstarts—and kept track of the wildflowers as they bloomed. I started to keep a journal, and to read books about islands. First, Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Then David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions, about the biological richness and fragility of islands. Then Kathleen Dean Moore’s The Pine Island Paradox

Again and again, I face an island’s paradox: Not even an island is an island. Storm-washed and rain-sodden, so hard to get to, so hard to escape, Pine Island is the very symbol of isolation and exile. But any geographer will tell you that an island is in fact only a high point in the continuous skin of the planet, the small part we can see of the hidden substance that connects everything on earth. It’s a sign—a beautiful, rock-solid, bird-spattered sign—of the wholeness of being, the intricate interdependencies that link people and places.

At night on the island, we watched the shooting stars and the Northern Lights. “Saw double open cluster in Perseus,” I wrote in my journal. One afternoon, the dog cornered a porcupine and ended up with a snout like a pincushion. I disliked leaving the island. In the woods, fallen trees had softened into nurse logs—green and plush with moss, veined with the roots of twinflowers and small cedars. The island healed itself. New life arose from death.

The summers blend together. Without studying my journal, I can’t sort events into their proper summers. Was it in 2004 or 2005 that I discovered the brown water scorpion? When was it that I watched the birds strip the elder of its berries in a single afternoon? Time loses its distinct shape. Memory grows over everything like moss.

Reading Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book reminded me of my island journal. Her writing conveys that timeless, yet time-haunted quality of island life. The book is a series of vignettes in which not terribly much happens, which don’t quite calcify into either plot or moral, but beautifully convey the richness and strangeness and elusive meaningfulness of a summer on an island. The main characters are six-year old Sophie and her grandmother. Sophie’s father appears, but only speaks once. Sophie’s mother has recently died, and her death quietly haunts the narrative. Like islands themselves, Sophie and her grandmother are weathered, vulnerable, both self-sufficient and interdependent. Their relationship is rendered without a touch of sentimentality, in spare language that is bright and stark and beautiful. Large themes—life and death, God, fate, and chance—are touched upon in a manner that is both light and serious. The moral of each story seems to bend away from the reader’s grasp, like something reached for underwater. Jansson’s writing reminded me of the other Scandinavian book I read this year, Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses. It has that same deceptive simplicity, the same thematic undercurrent of mortality and loss. But I liked The Summer Book more. It was less weighted with the need to find meaning, and paradoxically more meaningful. It was like being on an island: taking everything in, and sometimes seeing the sense it all makes.

Public Poetry at the Northfield Public Library

In early August, the director of the Northfield Public Library, Teresa Jensen, asked me to write a poem to be displayed prominently in the...