Put the famous first line on your behind

Our dear Virginia would raise an eyebrow, most likely, at these panties . . . but I couldn’t resist sharing this post, especially with the accompanying superb clip from The Hours as a mid-afternoon pick-me-up for all you Woolf-lovers out there. Enjoy, and cheers all! 🙂

Blogging Woolf

mrs_dalloway_quote_womens_boy_briefThanks to Title Wave for Books, you can put the famous first line of Mrs. Dalloway on your behind. And you can even choose from among three colors for your pair of boy-style underpants.

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself – Virginia Woolf

You can also put the quote under your head on a pillow and over your shoulder and at your side on a messenger bag.

You’ll find a variety of other commodities bearing the familiar quote here.

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Life Lessons, Writing Lessons: Julia Child Reprised

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Julia repriseSome time ago I wrote a post about what Julia Child taught me about writing. This might be surprising for readers who don’t know Julia’s history, or the fact that she’d always wanted to write novels!

Julia’s long been a role model and mentor for me and in that post I wanted to call attention to the ways in which her skill in the kitchen translates and adapts to the writing life. (To find out how, click on the link above and read the post — the kitchen and the writer’s desk are not as far removed as you might think!) Julia truly had an artist’s heart —  not only was she a splendid chef, but she was a prolific writer and lived life with a contagious joie de vivre which in turn brought joy to others. Living was an art for her.

In addition to reprising my earlier post, I’m happy to point interested readers in the direction of  two delicious Julia tidbits that came my way in the last few days — aptly timed since Julia’s birthday was only a week or so ago.

The first is a glorious new visual biography of Julia’s life — thanks so much to Cinzia Robbiano for bringing it to my attention! The illustrations are vivid and BonAppetit cover imagecharming, just like Julia herself, and depict with great accuracy and enthusiasm the vastly varied life experience of this amazing woman. It’s perfect for kids, of course — my son, who only recently became interested in watching old episodes of Julia’s The French Chef and is slowly developing a fascination with her, would truly appreciate the book — but Julia fans of all ages will be thrilled with the whimsical art and the humorous writing. Be sure to check out this beautifully detailed post about the book by Maria Popova at Brain Pickings.

BonApetit illustration

And that post by Maria led me to a review she’d written previously about the recently collected letters between Julia and her dear friend Avis DeVoto, which I also encourage you to read and enjoy. The book is called As Always, Julia:The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto. Maria provides a detailed review of the book, which catalogues the challenges Julia faced in writing and publishing Mastering The Art of French Cooking via her years of correspondence with Avis. The book also demonstrates the wonderful support a committed, giving friendship can provide to the realization of one’s art and is essential reading not only for Julia fans, but for artists of all sorts who are struggling to find a place for their work in the world. (On a side note, if you haven’t yet discovered Brain Pickings, you should. It’s a revelation, pure and simple. Consider the secondary purpose of this post a “heads up” for those readers who’ve been slow on the pick-up.)

One of the things that helps me the most as I soldier on towards deepening my living of a literary life is the example set by other artists. Mentors come and help us along on the journey from all fields and times. If you’ve not met Julia, or haven’t thought of her as a mentor in your creative endeavors, I hope this post and my previous one, as well as Maria’s reviews, will encourage you to make an introduction and strike up a friendship. Cheers!

Literary Wives Wrap-up: Raising the Question of Larger Significance

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Literarywives4For the last few months, I’ve been privileged to participate in the Literary Wives series,  a virtual book group, with some amazing women. We’ve read, reviewed, and discussed four books centering on wives within various types of marriages and time periods: American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld; The Paris Wife, by Patricia McClean; A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick; and The Aviator’s Wife, by Melanie Benjamin. We’re wrapping up our discussion with a final post before the others go on to commence part 2 of the series.

The focus of the reading and reviews was to examine the role of the wife in these novels, both how she viewed and defined herself and was viewed and defined by others. In my opinion, the wives in these novels suffered due to a lack of acknowledgement of their personhood. In some cases, this was a personal choice: for example, the choice Alice made in American Wife to continually keep her inner life, desires, and needs a secret from her husband. She chose not to assert herself in any meaningful way for reasons that are certainly problematic. But in other cases, the lack of acknowledgement of personhood came from the husband, and from the culture at large.

In general, the husband in each novel had more power and authority over the wife in question and used it to control her and to prey upon her emotions to such an extent that each wife felt responsible for her husband’s happiness and ability to use his gifts to his fullest extent. It is too easy to judge these women and say that they should have had more courage to stand up for themselves, to ensure their needs were being met in the marriage. However, it is the nature of woman to be a caregiver, to facilitate the development of life in all it’s aspects. By preying upon and taking advantage of this trait, the husbands in these novels forced each woman to choose between her own needs and his. It was not until much suffering had been endured that these women found ways to assert their own creative gifts, interestingly in each case through the inspired voices made real through the narrative of their individual experiences, as each of the books (except Goolrick’s) was told from the POV of the wife in question. In this way, the novel as artifact becomes a testament to and actualization of the voice that has been hidden, as well as the genesis of the creative power possessed by each wife. The merits and motives of each “voice” must be determiend by each reader; however, I generally found these written testaments powerful and hopeful, perhaps with the exception of Alice’s text, simply because I believe in the act of writing it she offered the ultimate act of betrayal in a marriage with betrayal as its foundation. I discuss this in more detail in my post on the novel.

The main point across the four novels is that it IS possible for a woman to be a generative force for life within a marriage — to be a good wife, mother, home-maker — but that she has a right to expect from her spouse support in exercising that generative power towards her own creative gifts, if she possesses the talent for it. Clearly both Anne and Hadley, in The Aviator’s Wife and The Paris Wife respectively, possessed great creative potential which they were forced to subsume due to their husbands’ inferiority complexes. Love given freely should not be afraid to allow each person to express themselves in the way true to their respective gifts and talents.  As persons, we strive to be women and men first, perhaps spouses next, then, in some cases, parents. But these roles are not all there is to a person. Each man and woman is blessed with certain gifts and talents which must be actualized if they are to be a whole human being who contributes fully to the purpose for which he or she is created. The characters of the husbands and wives in these four novels are no exception, and this rule is played out successively in each narrative.

In my opinion, it is this central issue which is the larger significance across the novels. We are responsible for the talents given us and will be called to account for our stewardship, or lack thereof. How did we use our gifts for the good of others? To help our fellow man? To raise hearts and minds to think of higher things? To bring beauty into the world? By it’s very nature a marriage should contribute to this wholeness of persons and thereby to communion, between the spouses, within the family, and, through them, with the larger society. The books all depict marriages that are disorered and flawed — this is to be expected as humans are flawed; however, my main concern is that in none of the books was there any hope that marriage be otherwise (except perhaps in Hadley’s second marriage at the end of The Paris Wife, but we are given little detail about this, except the crucial fact that fulfillment has been found in true support and self-giving love which is not afraid). Interestingly, in three of the novels, the point is made that faith has been abandoned by the couples. The exception is a flagrantly shallow “conversion” by the husband in American Wife, but in this faith is only a tool, a way for him to win votes, and is in no way a means towards realizing wholeness with his spouse. One wonders, then, in what has hope, faith, and love been placed? If solely in another flawed human being, then it is no surprise the marriages remain empty and devolve into deeper and deeper darkness. Moments of grace occur over and over again and sometimes are realized and accepted; but more often than not, the opposite is true, and I find this persistent lack of possibility a bit depressing.

The hearts and minds of both spouses in the novels are ordered towards wrong ends. The husbands in the novels are completely self-absorbed and their self-image inherently tied to their work — as writer, politician, explorer, miser —  (in American Wife, the husband was obsessed with leaving a “legacy” but it was such an empty one — a monument to his sense of self….nice) becomes an idol that crowds out any and all concern of others. The wives  — perhaps with the exception of Alice — do express a tendency, even a yearning, towards self-sacrifice, often to a great and admirable extent, but it is at the expense of their own gifts and in the end is not life-giving, either to themselves or to their spouses. Love means being able to set limits and it means being able to say “no” when someone tries to hurt you, or tries to hurt themselves. In every marriage, the husband was hell-bent on self-destruction. With rare exception, the wife’s silence contributed to rather than allayed this tendency.  To be of interest, and to raise the mind and heart above mere entertainment, the novelist is called to write the truth of human experience, in all its facets. One wonders whether the truth of a marriage based on the full recognition of personhood, committed to honest self-sacrifice and self-giving love, complete with all of its requisite pain and suffering and difficulty, with a goal towards accompanying the spouse on the road towards real, whole personhood, is to be found in the “wife” novels of the day? Elisabeth Leseur comes to mind as an example of this. . .

I’d like to thank my co-hosts for the opportunity to participate these last few months — it certainly has been eye-opeing and has provoked much to think about. Unfortunately, personal circumstances prevent me from continuing on with the group at this time. Please visit my co-host’s blogs — The Bookshelf of Emily J., One Little Library, and Unabridged Chick —  to find out what they thought of the novels in part 1 and what is planned for part 2 of the series.

One Reason I Choose To Read Real Books . . .

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. . . . is because they carry a world of history into the present. They act as a living bookmark, a reminder of who you were, where you were, and what was happening in your life when you read THAT particular book.

Books are literally touched along the pages of time, passing through untold hands, homes, and hearts — and under the paws of unscrupulous felines. They are the living embodiment of shared experience and community, a creation wholly, uniquely and intensely human. While I respect and appreciate the tool that is the e-reader, for this reader, nothing will ever replace a real book.

Photograph courtesy Emir O. Filipovic for National Geographic

Photograph courtesy Emir O. Filipovic for National Geographic

Literary Wives, Book #4: The Aviator’s Wife: The Wife As Object Lesson

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Literarywives4I never really knew Anne Morrow Lindbergh until quite recently. Oh, there’ve passing references to “the Lindbergh baby” and murmurs about Charles Lindbergh’s supposedly Nazi-friendly sympathies. But Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of Charles and mother of the kidnapped and murdered baby, remained a ghostly unspoken figure in these passing asides.

But then in the spring of 2012, her last book of published journals, Against Wind and Tide, surfaced on my radar and I devoured it. I found in her a kindred spirit, a wife, a mother, a woman who had suffered deeply and rejoiced mightily throughout her storied life, a woman who only relatively late in life found her voice (and her self) and remained undaunted and persistant in her search to set it free through her writing. Right after her journals, I read her Gift From the Sea, the work she is best known for and which also deeply touched my feminine creative heart.

So it was a happy gift to encounter Ms. Lindbergh again, so beautifully realized in the pages of Melanie Benjamin’s excellent novelization of her life, The Aviator’s Wife, our last pick for this series of the Literary Wives discussion group. It was a perfect book to close with and kept me glued to the page for nights on end.

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The journals I read previously were of Anne’s life from about halfway through this novel through to the end and even a bit beyond. I enjoyed the beginning of the novel and learning about her life as a shy, awkward, day-dreamy diplomat’s daughter who just didn’t seem to fit in. Young Anne had dreams she wasn’t quite sure how to fulfill, making her easy prey for the larger-than-life Charles Lindbergh who swept her off her feet before she really had much of a chance to think any of it through. In this way, she reminded me ever so much of Hadley in The Paris Wife who was in many ways very similar to Anne — a creative woman with drive and spirit who chose a life of excitement and unpredictability beside a man whose own force and drive nearly engulfs and subsumes her own. “Nearly” is the operative word — Anne, like Hadley, survives, almost by the skin of her teeth, and comes through stronger and more self-actualized than her husband, for all of his accomplishments.

In contemplating the role of the wife in the novel, I’d have to say she serves (from the male perspective) as an object lesson — a tabula rasa, meant to be molded and worked to specifications, no more, no less. I suppose this sounds harsh, but the circumstances and events within the marriage were quite harsh and a weaker woman would most certainly have crumbled under them — particularly under the brutal weight of the final unforgiveable secret which Anne discovers just before Charles’s death and which you will have to read the book to find out about.

I say “object lesson” because it is clear that Anne is talented and has dreams she’d like to pursue; however, Charles insists that she be his co-pilot and partner and he teaches her to follow his dreams and to help him to succeed in fulfilling them. This isn’t necessarily wrong or bad — spouses should assist one another in becoming fully-developed humans, capable of reaching their full potential in all aspects of life. But no spouse should coerce or commandeer the dreams of the other, and that is very much what happens in this marriage.

This is touchy territory — Charles is not protrayed as an ogre and clearly Anne chooses — she is never FORCED. But it’s the way in which these things come about that disturbs and troubles the mind of the reader. It is almost as if she is being gaslighted into things rather than doing them fully freely, because it is truly the thing she wants to do above all others. For example, Anne really wants to write, but as a busy wife and mother who spends the majority of her time alone tending to life while her husband cavorts the planet, she has precious little time or mental energy to spare for creative work. Charles effects to support her in pursuing her literary dreams, even building her a little cabin off their country estate so she has room and quiet to think — but then he tells her what he thinks she should be writing and enlists her support in writing for and about him and his life exploits. It is as if he supports her talent and the time it takes to nurture it so long as it forwards his own goals and desires….this was difficult to read, especially given my previous knowledge of Anne’s struggles and the gift her works have been to me. That she had to literally dig herself out from under her husband’s devouring shadow speaks to her strength, but it also speaks to something very psychologically dark in the underbelly of the marriage that was hard for me to stomach.

Every time Anne tries to assert herself, especially in things concerning the welfare of her children, Charles undercuts her with the same argument about his need of her and her essential role (which he has groomed her into) as his partner and copilot, making her feel time and again that he cannot do anything without her and thus forcing her to choose between the things that identify the very soul of who she is — her motherhood and her writing — and their relationship. Charles wants her full attention and support, but is not willing or able to give her the same in return, nor does he have any deep capacity for sharing her with the other two essentially necessary components of her life — their children and her words.

anne-morrow-lindbergh-and-her-childrenIt is clear to me that Anne loves Charles and she sees his flaws clearly, though perhaps not as early as she might have. And Anne is herself flawed — there are issues of classism, naiveté, prejudice, and entitlement that can make her off-putting. There is no attempt at idolizing in Benjamin’s portrait. She strives for wholeness and I believe she achieves it. For all his shortcomings, Charles does give to Anne a powerful gift — he nurtures courage in her heart and through his pushing, she learns to trust herself in a way she might not otherwise have been able to. In a similar way, Anne provides Chares with the emotional stability, love and sincere human contact that he was deprived of as a child. He is an emotionally stunted human, incapable of real depth and this defect makes him dangerous. Marriage to a man like Charles ultimately means living life alone.

However, like the other female characters in The Paris Wife and American Wife, Anne chooses to love, chooses to stay, chooses to work and persevere in a less than ideal marriage. She eventually also chooses to stand up for herself and what is most dear to her. She chooses, too, to sacrifice herself for the good of her children to give them the best possible life in an otherwise wholly unconventional and not necessarily happy domestic arrangement. It is an arrangement in which she, while certainly chosen by Charles once, is not chosen by him over the long-term, especially once she ceases to continue to run after him.

Ultimately, perhaps, Charles feels his Pygmalion project is unsuccessful, which accounts for his actions towards the secret revealed at the end of the novel. This is nothing less than devastating. Anne does nothing to deserve his treatment of her and the fact that she manages to rise above pettiness and bitterness to live a life of gift to others speaks a great deal to her character. Charles is a problematic figure. There is a lot about him which, like Hemingway in The Paris Wife, is very attractive. But simply because a man is attractive and fun to be with and exciting at times, does not necessarily mean he will be a good husband. If there is anything that is a common thread through all of the books we’ve read for this series it is this essential fact. There is the sense throughout the book that actions speak louder than words when it comes to love — and there are some actions that are so antithetical to love that it would seem hard to survive the depth of the betrayal. But Anne does survive and she becomes more fully human in her pain.

One of the things I liked best about this novel is the authenticity of voice Benjamin anne-morrow-writerachieves with Anne. Since I’ve read her journals and her non-fiction, I was worried that the voice in the novel would be different than the Anne I’d gotten to know. But Benjamin did her homework and Anne’s voice rings through loud and clear in this fictional presentation.

The Aviator’s Wife is a beautiful, poignant, joyful, and often absolutely heartbreaking journey through one woman’s life which could stand as representative for the lives of many women. It is, ultimately, a testament to the authenticity of the feminine genius and the need to cultivate this spirit of creative self-giving, often under the most challenging circumstances. I recommend it wholeheartedly. And if you happen to be a writer, Ms. Lindbergh is someone you’ll want to get to know as a friend and mentor — be sure and check out the other two books I mention in this post.

Don’t forget to visit my Literary Wives cohosts — Emily, Ariel, and Audra — for their take on The Aviator’s Wife. Did you get a chance to read the book? What did you think?

The Reading Room

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WomanreadingonladderInteresting reads from across the literary landscape . . .

Lost Evelyn Waugh letters reveal thwarted love for ‘bright young thing’, by Dalya Alberge for The Observer

Poets in Partnership: Rare 1961 BBC Interview with Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes on Literature and Love, by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

On the grotesque in fiction (channeling Flannery O’Connor), by Ron MacLean for Grub Street Daily

Flannery O’Connor’s Last Novel, Paul Elie in conversation with Kevin Spinale, S.J., a podcast for America Magazine

Ann Patchett speaking at the ALA Conference, 2013, Poets & Writers

UNFINIShed, a new story by Kathryn Martins, The Kenyon Review (KROnline)

A Novel Vocation: A Conversation with Ron Hansen, by Joseph O’Brien for Dappled Things

Writing Through The Curves, Tip #4: Write something else.

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FireballOne of the things I most appreciate about major league pitchers is their ability to throw a variety of different pitches. They have an entire repertoire at their disposal – the knuckle ball, spitball, slider, fast ball, curveball, change-up – and the pitch used varies depending on the need; however, it is possible for a pitcher to master a particular pitch, to become known as a career expert at throwing the fastball, for example.

Much like any other creative endeavor, the day to day of life on the mound is a variation between art and form: the action of art — the pitch — stays the same; but the form, or the way the pitch (the art) is expressed, can change based on need or change in circumstance. This practice presents a valuable lesson for writers trying to write through the curves their own lives. Too often, perhaps, we cling to a rigid practice of form when we might experience less stress and greater productivity if we allowed ourselves greater flexibility of form as the circumstances of our writing lives change.

Writers staring down the curveballs may become depressed or discouraged when they find they can no longer maintain the same momentum in their writing project. This is understandable. But like the pitcher that doesn’t give in to frustration because his slider isn’t working to strike out the batter he’s facing down, perhaps the answer lies in trying something else, in writing something else.

In my case, the parts of my brain required to build the world of my novel and live there for any length of time with the characters has become increasingly hard to access. This is largely due to the type of health problems I’m having, but there are other reasons as well, some of which I have alluded to in this series and all of which have escalated, hence the reason why the series is not yet finished.  My own personal challenges here aren’t really relevant. The operative point is upheaval has changed my writing life to something unrecognizable. So what do I do? How do I keep writing when what I’m used to doing clearly won’t work right now? Like the pitcher, I continue on with the art of writing, but I feel free to change the form – I continue to work on my novel at less of a fever pitch, with less drive and force than I have been until now, and instead allow myself to write something else now and again. Like the pitcher, I don’t give up writing, I simply throw a different pitch by writing something else, by writing some other way. With the curveballs, it seems to me more important that I simply CONTINUE TO WRITE. As long as I am writing something, I’m in the game. To not write at all would be the death knell.

We use different parts of our brains for different writing tasks – kind of like you use different muscles for different exercises or sports. Writing something else – a poem, a short story, an essay, a letter, a blog post, a book review, a lesson plan, a writing journal, etc. — can be a relief, especially if that other form comes easier for you than the one you typically work in. For me, writing nonfiction is like breathing, while fiction writing is new and more difficult. At this challenging time in my life, as long as I can fall back on the form of writing that comes easiest to me and keep my mind and imagination limber, while still making time to engage my fiction, I am being faithful to my call to write.

So if things on your plate are roiling like a maelstrom, try writing something else – blog posts, essays, poetry, journals, letters to people you know or would like to know. The important thing is to keep exercising those muscles, keep writing. Something is better than nothing at all and your project isn’t going anywhere. It will still be there for those moments when you are able to attend to it.

This is part four of a six-part series. You can find the others here: Series Opener, Tip #1, Tip #2, Tip #3.

Finding Light in A Reliable Wife

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My friend, Ruth, posted an enlightening and insightful comment about Robert Goolrick’s A Reliable Wife in which she elucidates the subtle but singular light she found at the end of the novel.  Amidst all of the discussion across several blogs and comment threads, Ruth’s analysis shines brightly and casts at least the end of the novel in a favorable light. The difficulties are still present, and I stand by my critique of the problems the novel presents. As a follow-up to our Literary Wives Discussion of the novel, I showcase Ruth’s comment here as a worthy perspective on the light, or moment of grace, at the end of A Reliable Wife. It is something one must dig for, certainly, but this light is crucial to a work of literary art and, as Ruth writes it, is an important and meaningful accomplishment.  Thank you, Ruth, for finding and taking the time to articulate the bright spots!

Although this wasn’t my kind of book, Angela, and I can quite see why you didn’t finish it, I did manage to get to the end. I’m actually glad I did make it to the end as there was a little ‘light’ there. As you say, there are a number of difficulties, but as I have a bit of a policy not to say negative things about writers, I’ll offer this thought on the conclusion and the title. I felt there was redemption, after a fashion, for both Catherine and Ralph by the end of the book, but Catherine in particular. I thought it telling her comment on pg 286: ‘She had agreed to marry him without realizing that marriage brought a kind of simple pleasure, a pleasure in the continued company of another human being, the act of caring, of carrying with you the thought of someone else.’ That Catherine made it to this place, after all that had gone before is redemption and grace I think. It seems a simple thing to know and understand, but the fact that this was new to her shows the terrible place she was in. Her creation of the garden is also telling. Plants represent renewal, beauty, things that need care and cherishing and this becomes her focus. She travels the farthest in the book I think, because she had the farthest to travel. Maybe in this sense she does then become ‘A Reliable Wife.’ The parameters of the novel are so far from the norm that I think it’s impossible to compare with normal life. But in terms of her life, she definitely makes some positive progress.The characters are all deeply damaged, though, and, as such, it’s not a pleasant read!