Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Seeking Another Woman's Skin

In St. Vincent de Paul,
warehouse for shed skins,
fetid, brown-smelling,
thick and rank in their racks
as reptiles in a back-
water zoo,
shirts seething next to
moth-eaten coats,
rows upon rows of
loose-kneed pants, faded skirts,
crumpled T shirts and cracked shoes,
I plunge chapped hands
into cold polyester,
the smoke and stink
of other womens' lives--

try on a pair of faded Levis,
trail my finger over a yellow spot
near the crotch--
a drop of mustard, or
trace of blood washed
into a half-moon, acid kiss
of a lover, his wrathful
tear, maybe the faint hiss
of his cigarette--

on me, it's a half-
smile, small and sly,
yellow tongue
flicking the taut zipper.

Under this stranger's skin
I am naked, raw and
nearly new.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Blood Rage

Grandpa, you crusty cigar chewing old bastard--
Why'd you have to do it that way?
The old gun to the head routine. What a cliche.

It's your fault, you know,
I'm such a drag on the emotional economy,
your dark cloud that visits every winter

and stays through spring.
I hate it, your lack of faith, your thick black sludge
slogging through my blood.

Take it back, you asshole--your rage
pricking every root of every hair,
your voracious hole demanding

more, more, more,
impotent voice that breaks loose
in molten curses--

dragonfire searing, mostly,
those dumb enough to love us.
Your hand pours wine down my throat--

glug glug glug--
liquid sugar to plug
the bottomless gullet.

But you taught me to drink poetry, too,
a kinder savior than the stern patriarch
who ruled your cold Lansing home

and the silent Methodist church.
You must've hated them, Calvinist
father and mother,

silent Sundays, dusty Bible--
you never talked about your childhood,
ran away as soon as you were able,

left me that ability to run
but not the ability to face forward
or forget.

Gave me your square cleft chin,
blue eyes that squint as if against
a bone-crushing wind,

the temperament to dive
again and again into raucous waves,
figure the best way to crash in hostile seas,

and this white white skin, pale as skim milk,
your son's death suit,
cloth fit only for burning.

I want to drag you out
of senseless nothing,
your planned afterlife,

smack some sense into you,
you crusty son of a bitch,
fucking old cancer coddling wreck,

knock you around Tutu's blue living room
until you say you're sorry,
and pull me into one of those bear hugs

that took my breath when I
was just a lost kid without a father--
hold on and beg you to stay.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Pipe Down

In the early 80s, American girls in Mexico City,
we loved to dance, jiggling new breasts and tight buttocks
to Chic, Earth Wind & Fire, Shakakan,
pumping our fists in the air and moaning ahhhhh
freak out!
as we leapt off Joanne's double bed
to stick a landing--
arms straight, fingers wide and stretched--
jazz hands, she called them--
on the tan carpet
cluttered with our polyester shirts, whirled
and thrown off in sweaty dance passion,
and our tight Calvin Kleins, kicked off leg by leg,
and her new Candies, hard wooden quotation marks
around the scrambled comment cast
by my chunky leather "chastity" belt.

Joanne's mother, frowning under big glasses,
mousey blonde hair frosted like a cake
in waves over her shiny forehead,
would've told us to pipe down
if she'd heard us
shouting we are family with Sister Sledge,
Joanne's anthem,
but her mother was floating alone in the pool,
under the moon,
as her father, who worked for PPG, flew
on a mysterious errand,
across the dry divide between Mexico and the States.

Now Joanne's got three kids of her own,
a balding builder husband,
and a million dollar house in Southern California.
At a Palm Springs spa a few years ago,
none of us danced.
Joanne, reserved under a cropped cap
of highlighted hair, roused into an echo
of that old dance passion
only to declare "gay" a "lifestyle,"
curling her lips,
as if "lifestyle" were something that needed to be
stamped out at once,
like a carpet fire
caused by a hopeless drunk's cigarette.

While she talked, I stared at her fingers,
still graceful, long and slim.
They flared as she spoke--
jazz hands, wide and strong,
sticking the words
like raw notes
under my skin.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Kitchen Confidential

That's what I'm reading right now. It's a fun ride, especially after Against the Day. Of course, the graphic descriptions of the food abuses that go on behind the scene make me loathe to run out and spend a lot of money at expensive dining establishments in the near future.

Of course, after I listened to Fast Food Nation I swore that I would never, EVER eat at McDonalds again. A few weeks later, I chomped down on a double cheeseburger and inhaled a large fries with only a twinge of guilt and disgust for my fluid morality. The same thing happened when I read Nickeled and Dimed in America--I thought I'd never shop WalMart again. I already knew they were the devil, anyway. It was just further ammunition. Needless to say, I've darkened their doors more than once since then. AND I've contemplated hiring the Merry Maids to tackle the clutter.

I promise to read McCarthy's The Road before 2008. In the meantime, I'm avoiding what I'm supposed to be doing this minute, which is to be rereading Act I of Death of a Salesman.

(As a side comment to the anonymous poster who suggests that the tragedy is not that Willy's job doesn't have meaning for him but that it doesn't have the meaning he thinks it has--what I'm saying is that Willy should have a job planting or building things. He's good with his hands. But he doesn't think those jobs or callings have enough cache and so he demeans himself for doing them, then demeans others, like Charlie, for not being able to do them, and denigrates his son for "drifting" from ranching job to ranching job. So, sales is not what Will's been called to do.)

I hate the Linda character for her martyrishness. Shit. That seems to be the story of so many of our lives. I guess that, in this way, and in others, I am too much like Biff.

And on that happy note...

Monday, January 22, 2007

Deep Dark Mysteries

Back in the office for a new semester. Feels a bit shiny, even though I don't teach until tomorrow.

In the meantime, I'm making plans for the first day of class, which involves reading the first assignments again. Making plans = thinking about doing it, stacking the books on my desk, and then writing in livejournal, AIM, talking to students and colleagues, getting hungry, and etcetera.


I have a question for movie aficcionados: what's the last line that Ennis mutters to the shirt on the closet door at the end of Brokeback Mountain? I can't figure it out, despite rewinding and replaying at least 3 times.

Maybe it's supposed to be a deep dark mystery.


I think next I'll read Kitchen Confidential, or Children of Men. I also have a Wilkie Collins book sitting on my desk here in the office, The Evil Genius, and its beginning is pretty good. Sucks me in. I'd rather read that, in fact, right now, instead of going over Death of a Salesman for the umpteenth time.

Still, I always find something interesting in Death, every time I read it again, talk about it again with a class. Work is such an integral part of who we think we are, who we become in the world. If our work is inauthentic--if we're not doing what we're "meant" to do--then the whole world is off kilter, as it is for poor Willy.

Well thank the lord, or whoever, that I get to do what I like to do, which is to read and write and talk about reading and writing (and myself) to a captive audience.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Plot Anxiety

Perhaps I spoke too soon about Against the Day. I seem to be reading at my usual rate, but no nearer the end each time I finish.

I'm somewhere in the 800s. There are so many characters in play that I have to blank out the need to remember who they are when they appear again. Perhaps, I tell myself, they are all variations on the same theme--the women variations on the sexual spy, the men variations on the lone Eastwood cowboy.

I have no background in WWI history. All that machination, the political intrigue, arguments about borders, alliances, allegiances, religious preferences--it goes, fffft, over my head. I'm sure this makes me a shallow person, but when the novel delves into explanation mode I check out. Skim. Eyeballs fluttering to the back of my head.

I just want people to have conversations, for Christ's sake. I want them to get into arguments. I want them to throw things at each other, pull out knives, take a walk, reveal secrets, chase each other down, figure out the goddamn mystery.

Oops. Wandered into a familiar complaint zone.

Two votes for Cormac McCarthy's The Road for my next challenge. Humph. If the novel's going to be deliberately obtuse (as I seem to recall, the author of A Reader's Manifesto raked McCarthy over the coals for being difficult for difficult's sake. He also skewered Annie Proulx, who I happen to like. He had a bug up his ass about their "sentences"--a quality of sentencing that critics fawn all over and that the author claims is just incomprehensibility) I don't want to tackle it right now.

Give me plot or give me TV!

Friday, January 19, 2007

I have to write a poem from my soul...

A friend texted me the other day: "I know what I want for my birthday. A poem from your soul!"

Bastard. I've put off the activity and tomorrow is his birthday. What am I going to write?

Part of me wants to write a version of Larry Levis' "The Poem You Asked For." This poem slowly takes on human form, beats up the poet, slicks back its hair, and heads off to the asker's house. Ha. There's something violent in a requested poem.

No. Rewind and delete. There's something violent in me these days when I face the task of writing a new poem.

Facing this particular request, I ask myself: Do I have a soul? And if I have one, does it want to write poems?

Hum. If I have a soul, it's a dark viscous material on the bottom of my stomach lining right now. It's black and sludgy. When I move, it lies inert. When I walk through a shopping mall, as I've been doing far too much lately, it hides from strangers' eyes. It doesn't stir as I pull out my credit card. It doesn't care how many pairs of black slacks I purchase, or about the expanding range of colors in my turtleneck collection. It's reptilian, cold-blooded. A kind of liquid parasite.

Does it want to write poems? No. Mostly, it wants to be left alone. It wants to hide in the recesses of my body where it's dark and practice complete stillness. It doesn't want a mind. It doesn't want to be roused into conversation. It wants the safety of TV, of superficial narratives with predictable plots, characters who are types, who change in the usual, seen-it-all-before ways, not the image blasting mind bending torsion of poetry. And it certainly doesn't want to create a poem designed to connect with another human being, one it cares about fundamentally.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Pynchon Update

I think I might actually make it through Against the Day by Tuesday, when I have to begin to teach again.

What's next?

Monday, January 15, 2007

Chicago Diaries


We’re safely ensconced in the Embassy Suites Chicago Downtown/Lakefront. It’s quite posh—two rooms, a sink in the bedroom, a little mini sink, fridge, microwave area, a ceiling fan in the living room area, and a fold out bed for the girls. They’re on the bed now, their teeth brushed, their various pills taken, reading their books.

The weather, of course, hasn’t cooperated. It’s been spitting an icy rain on us since the late afternoon. By the time the girls and I arrived in Brillion to pick up Dave at Ariens, it was positively glowering, the last embers of a weak sun dissolving into muddy purple clouds. There was no differentiation between the road and the sky, and the whole bleeding mess was making me drowsy (me and my head cold). So I told Dave that he was driving. Isn’t that what men are for? Husbands, anyway?

No incidents of road rage, no spinning cars or cars flying into the ditch (that’s Michigan), no close shaves. The most alarming car aspect is the fact that we have to pay 35.00 a day for parking here. And that’s the “budget” parking garage next door. We had to wind around and around and around the parking garage, looking for a parking space. The spaces must be narrower than we’re used to in supersizeme Wisconsin, because the space we finally found smelled funny to me—I thought it was really a walkway, or a margin for error. But no. We discovered a number painted underneath the car when we got out and sniffed around.

There must be a convention for girls in leotards—gymnasts, or dancers. As we got off the elevator on the 12th floor to look for our room, we encountered a tense knot of about 15 of them, clustered around an emotional dark-haired woman in an expensive track suit. “You don’t have to get a platinum metal to be best in show,” the woman told them. “I’d be lying to you if I said—“

And then I was down the hall and out of range. Dave brought up the rear. “An emotional moment,” he said.

We wondered what was going on. Dave went back to the car to retrieve our camera (hard to get all our flotsam and jetsam out of the car in one load, even with the two girls acting as pack mules). When he got back, he remarked: “There must be something going on at this hotel because there were tons of rug rats milling all over the place.” Good. Because the glass elevator reminded us of our hotel in Mexico City, the totally unkidfriendly place, and I don’t want a repeat of that experience, especially for Lizzie’s 10th birthday celebration.

When we got into the room, Lizzie exclaimed at all the amenities. “This birthday trip keeps getting better and better,” she announced. The cockles of my heart flared into a crackling blaze. She and Jaimee set to work photographing the construction site across the way.

Tomorrow, we’ll hit the American Girl Place and the Field Museum. We’re set to meet Zolt and Julie and Grant for dinner. I saw a Pizzeria Uno close to the hotel. Yes, a chain! Eventually, Lizzie will grow up and perhaps her tastes will expand to encompass the unique flavor experience, rather than the mundane or predictable, as is her current bent.

To prepare for the trip, I watched a few episodes of The Office, the American version, while doing intervals on the recumbent bike. In one of them, Michael Scott goes to New York City for a corporate meeting. He’s speaking to the camera excitedly about how much he loves the hustle and bustle of the big city. “Oh,” he says, jumping off the curb and dashing between a bus and a cab, into the street. “There’s my favorite New York pizza place. I always get a slice when I come here.”

It’s a Sbarro, of course.


This morning, we woke up around 7:30. I thought it was 6:30 (but should’ve known from the light coming through the window that I was wrong) because the clock in our bedroom is a whole hour wrong.

I’m still reading through Against the Day, so the time warp bedroom seems appropriate, as the novel is turning out to be about world domination and time.

In any case, we roused ourselves and the girls and went down to the Sky Lobby for our complimentary breakfast, which turned out to be a huge smorgasbord buffet line with everything from made to order omelets to donuts to the usual vaguely snotty trays of scrambled eggs. We loaded up with bacon, sausage links, eggs, hash browns, pancakes and fruit, and made our way to the last open table for four. In less than ten minutes, the girls had dispatched with their breakfasts and were staring at Dave and me with hawkish attention.

Up in the room again, we showered and etc., while the girls waited impatiently with their American Girls. Kirsten and Elizabeth were both dressed in their best doll finery when I finished with my shower and dressing.

“When are we going to the American Girl Place?” Lizzie demanded to know.

“I’m ready whenever you guys are.”

Lizzie and Jaimee arranged the girls on the chair and Dave sat by the door, playing with his Mac. No one looked up at me. I was going to give my hair a blow-dry vacation, and my eyes a mascara free weekend, but the sudden lack of interest in my readiness sent me back to the bathroom, where I applied goop to my lashes and blowed my hair into the usual mushroom cap with a flip.

“Now I’m totally ready,” I announced. “We better get going before I find something else to do.”

The girls packed themselves and their perky AGs into the elevator and we were off. We walked the 8 or so blocks to American Girl Nirvana. A cold wind drilled into my ears (I forgot to bring a hat, goddamnit) and my thighs in their Levis grew tree trunkfish with cold. We arrived and the girls giggled shrilly with glee as we swept under the royal awnings, through the golden glass doors, into the site of what can only be described as a commercial sinkhole.

Girls and their parents milled and moiled through three separate floors of commercial chaos, looking at doll dioramas, picking expensive boxes of outfits and dolls, filling their baskets eye-high with AG goodies. Some mothers and fathers arranged their progeny in front of this glass case or that, smiling with rigid intensity as they snapped digital memories.

As we descended to the “Character Floor,” the lowest level, a girl at the end of the line stumbled and then bent down to pick something up. “Get out of the way,” her father growled, kicking the box out of her grasp and bumping her to the side. As we passed them, off the elevator, I could hear him lecturing, “There are tons of people behind you. You can’t bend down like that and block the flow…” She had long brown hair that glistened a bit in the golden lighting from recessed ceiling lamps; she appeared to be in her early teens, a bit too old for her father’s fussiness. This is a family out of balance, I thought, channeling Cesar Millan.

Actually, it felt like a commercial world slightly out of balance, as if I’d been sucked into a living, breathing catalogue, every minute swept into the beating heart of American commerce, where girls are converted into women with the spank of money, the urge of consumerism, the driving impulse to spend. I had to sit down because my back started to hurt. I stretched my hands to my ankles and held on a bit, letting the muscles shriek as they pulled, assuming the position.

Then we were out. We went to the Water Tower shopping mall for lunch on the advice of the AG cashier, and found an international themed food court. Dave and I had burritos the size of my head and the girls had grilled cheese and French fries.

Back to the hotel to dump the AGs and their new finery, then out into the world again. Taxi to the Field Museum. Hurrah! It was discount day, so we all got in for free. Which was a good thing, it turned out, as the girls wilted after only an hour in the museum, and began to whine, or pre-whine, to leave. At first, we couldn’t find our way out of the maze of stuffed animals. Eventually, though, we got out of the labyrinth and onto the cold sidewalk.

As punishment for their short attention spans (turns out that the AGs and their finery were working their siren calls on the girls), we walked back to the hotel, a mile plus through the cold parks along the lake.

And now here we are, waiting for Zolt and Julie and Grant to show up for Pizzeria Uno dinner.

I’ve got a sinus headache thing that two ibus have not kicked (yet). My teeth hurt a little. I’ve dozed on the bed for a few minutes with Against the Day propped on my chest. Lizzie and Jaimee have attired their girls in their new togs and are creating vast oral scenarios in the living room for them. (All day long, we’ve bumped into clots of girls with their AGs in tow, their smiling suburban preppy mothers—usually mothers—leading the rear.)

Our hotel is populated with AGites, the Michigan men’s gymnastics team, some sort of dance conference for pre-teens, and preppy guys dressed in Dave’s uniform: jeans, sweater, collared shirt, comfortable lace up shoes. On the way home from the Museum, as we slogged through the frigid park, the girls pattering through a series of louder and louder playground slap songs, Lizzie commented, “I keep forgetting that we’re in Chicago. When you said we had to go back to the hotel, I thought, what hotel? Oh, yeah, I remembered, we’re not in Wisconsin anymore. But I look around and we could be in Wisconsin.”

Yep. In the other room, Lizzie and Jaimee are doing just what they’d do if we were on Reed Street and they were in her room, or the basement, or the living room.


Dinner was fun. Pizzeria Uno promised a 2-3 hour wait, outside in the cold, so we went down the street to Pizzeria Due, which promised a 1.5 hour wait, again outside, so we went around the corner to the California Pizza Kitchen, which promised a 10 minute wait. After 20 minutes, they showed us to a set of back to back booths.

"Um," I said, "this isn't going to work." The woman looked at me blankly. "We're having a reunion," I said, in Spanish. "We haven't seen each other in a year or two. We need to talk and we can't talk like this."

"It will take longer, then," the woman said.

No problem. At least we were inside. Grant, just turned 2, climbed up on the waiting bench and stood. "Down," Julie said. "Grant, tooshie on the seat." He looked at her, weighed his options, and bent his knees a few inches. When Julie looked away again, he straightened them.

Pizza was good, if not authentic Chicago. Lizzie and Jaimee snapped pictures like maniacs at the other end of the massive booth we finally scored. Grant pointed at them and crowed, in between stacks of his board books.

(I would share some of Lizzie's pictures, but it turns out that the cable enclosed with the camera is wrong. After calling Nikon about it (and one has to search through the website to find a phone number), I discover that I will have to doall kinds of faxing gyrations in order to get a replacement cable swapped out. It's easier, and they know it, to just go to the store and get one that fits. Bastards. This will get me onto another rant, about the Nintendo DS and Game Cube scam, but I digress...)

It was great to see Zolt and Julie and Grant, who has Julie's fair coloring and Zolt's face--flashbacks to Zolt in the classroom, Arizona, sitting in the row next to the door, grinning ear to ear with the sheer pleasure of learning, one of the only people in the room to express it, that same energy in Grant's glee as he stacks the last book and I squeal with pleasure for him, clap my hands, yayyyyyy Grant and Zolt!--even in the hustle and bustle and wait wait wait in the cold of Michigan and Wabash Avenues. It felt as if there was nothing much to say to Zolt, since he's been reading all these entries.

Yesterday morning we got up, ate our complimentary breakfast, loaded up the car, checked out, and took a taxi to the Shedd Aquarium. Lots of cool fish, and a Soldiers Field next door packed to the top with Bears fans celebrating the play off game. Made it through that experience in 2 hours, then back to the hotel in another cab, pay parking, drive out. We breathed a sigh of relief when we found 94 and were headed in the right direction.

Ten miles past the exit, Dave remembered that he had to go to Brillion to pick up his truck from work, so we wended through a lot of back country roads around Denmark, bleak farms all brown and gray, waiting for this snow.

It was dark by the time we got to Ariens. Dave got his truck, I drove Jaimee home to De Pere, and then we made it back to Reed Street around 5:54. Phew. Home again.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Notes on Notebooks

I try to use a writer's notebook to keep my ideas flowing. Following Julia Cameron's new agey coda, outlined in The Artist's Way, I occasionally revert back to the 3 page a day diet, longhand, written without censorship, meant to be unread (for quite a while). I also follow another Zenny woman's advice, Natalie Goldberg, and I let all that stuff (euphemism) percolate in the "compost heap" for --

Well, forever. I've got a shelf full of notebooks somewhere that haven't been cracked in years. I'm afraid to open them. I'm sure that those little nit bugs, the feathery gnats that are now rising up in clouds from Steve 's dirt, (Steve's our Madagascar Dragon Christmas tree, purchased from Home Depot on fire sale), will fly right up my nose as soon as I spread the pages.

I'm not sure that the notebooks work for me. And yet I keep assigning them to my students, and collecting them, and counting the entries, all the while trying not to read the entries on love lives, crushes, hatreds, boredoms, fighting down my intense voyeuristic streak. (The reader in me.)

Well, I'm not sure that working out at least 5 times a week is "working" for me, either, and yet I continue to do it. In fact, if I'm not able to exercise, I get panicky. I am afraid that my thighs and ass will balloon up and anchor me to the earth. I won't be able to move. I'll wake up and find myself trapped in a loathesome life, a bloated, snorting, sweating, half naked wreck.

The theory is this: one has to keep the juices flowing. Dad (a bloated, snorting, sweating, half naked wreck) used to put the pedal to the metal when we'd be on family trips, pushing the Aspen station wagon up to 80, 85, 90, on those hillock roads in Mexico that might lead us to Zihuatanejo. "I'm blowing out the bad gas," he'd say. And in Mexico, there was such a thing as bad gas--dirty gas, leaded gas, catalytic converter eating gas.

Maybe the notebooks are a way to blow out the bad gas so that, later, when I (theoretically) sit down to write something "real," something destined to be a recognizable animal (short story, essay, poem, novel, book), quality will come out. I'll be focused, laser sharp, witty, writing with a purpose.

Maybe the notebooks are also a way to cheat the old censors, the ones that sit in judgment in my head, saying, "God, what are you thinking? Who asked your opinion? You're still a dweeb who can't match her shirt to her pants, her flood pants, aren't you?" Maybe the notebooks allow me to vomit all that censoring stuff out and then put it away in the compost pile, forget about it.

And maybe the notebooks are just another way for me to circumvent what I should be doing--writing a recognizable animal--along with the blog, the journal, the syllabus, the email, the (sorry, friends) letter of recommendation...

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Running with Scissors: A Nice Break

So. I haven't given up completely on Against the Day. Once I announced that I wanted to drop the book like a hot rock, the plot came back into action. I like the sections where the Chums (boys in a balloon) fight with each other over ridiculous adolescent shit, faux spy intrigue, and I like the out-West portions with lost sons and fathers. I also like the sections of the novel devoted to the noirish detective, Lew. So I've forged ahead. I'll just speed read the parts that confuse me (a habit created and honed in graduate school) and sink my mental teeth into the parts where I get gription.

In the meantime, I've started to read Augusten Burrough's Running with Scissors as comic relief. (Thanks, Kyle, for the great Christmas present!) It's fun, intellectually nonconfrontational, and vaguely reminiscient of one of my faves (who I recently misnamed, whoops, in a previous post), David Sedaris. Both B and S are borderline obsessive compulsives, gay from the cradle, with crazy family situations, notably the mothers. Both B and S seem to cure themselves, partially, with cigarettes. Both have very tenuous relationships to established authorities (schools). Both write wryly and yet fondly of their childhood "abuse."

I have to confess that I like S about 25% more than I like B. Why? B is not as anally obsessed as S. I like a good anal obsession.

Friday, January 5, 2007

When Is It Okay to Throw in the Towel?

I have a friend who gives every book 50 pages. If she's not hooked within 50 pages, the book goes back to the library, or is left on the airplane seat for the next potential reader, or into the trash. "Life's too short," she says.

I'm trying like Hell to read Pychon's Against the Day. But every page makes me more confused. I think there's a story underneath the verbiage, but I'm not sure. Whole fat paragraphs float past my eyes. I catch a word here or there, grasp at a setting, think I can discern characters, but for the most part I find myself confused, frustrated, clueless.

I felt the same way when we first moved to Mexico and I knew enough Spanish to flesh out a dialogue: Esta Susana en casa? Si. Esta en la sala? No, esta en la cocina. Trying to understand the world around me, a world that rarely contained Susana, her house, the living room or the kitchen, was like trying to read Pynchon's frustrating novel. I knew there was some important shit going down, but I wasn't part of it. I was standing on the outside of it, panicked, frantic to get in, while men and women and children danced (at least that's how it seemed) around me, pointing and laughing. For all I knew, a bus was aimed right at me.

According to my friend's apt formula, I should bail on the book. I'm around page 180, 10 or so characters and ... 7? 56? ... settings and at least 30 subplots (some of them dead ends, as far as I can tell) in. I've given P's nightmare world 3x the amount of attention my short life can afford.

And it's making me feel stupid, as well. I should just jettison it, right?

But here's the deal. I've spent 26.00 on the book. I did NOT check it out of the library.
It's fat -- heavier than a bread basket filled with pumpernickel.

I'm an English professor. Can English professors admit defeat? Or, if they can, when is appropriate? And should they just keep that information to themselves, so as not to dispel the illusion of literary mastery?

Further, the New York Times gave the novel a great review. (Well, a mostly great review.) This adds to my feeling of failure. What's wrong with me? Have I been spoiled by Chick Lit, mysteries, thrillers, and other tawdry pleasures?

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Margaret Atwood: The Penelopiad

Just finished speed reading that novella, by one of my favorite novelists.

It was just the right mixture of alternate point of view remake (Penelope and Oddyseus), first person narrator, poetry interludes (the Chorous, composed of the 12 maids hung by O. for "fraternizing" with the suitors), bitter women, feminist in-your-faceness, and just punkish wry humor. It's not very long, either. Took me about an afternoon to read. (Well, I'm a fast reader. Sometimes too fast.)

I'm a great fan of Atwood, though a retired professor friend, Bob, told me once that she was a pain in the tuckus when she visited one of his colleagues as a Guest Reader. The colleague called Bob and said "Help." Bob had to go over there and provide entertainment, I guess, as she worked and worked it. I got the impression she was something like Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest.

I try to keep these anecdotes out of my head when I'm reading great novels, such as Orynx and Crake. I don't think there's been an Atwood novel that I haven't admitted is very good, even if I don't particularly groove on it. The only novel that I didn't particularly groove on, if you must know, was The Blind Assassin. Supposedly a mystery, one of my faves, and a sci fi novel. But it was just boring, in parts, in my humble opinion. If I went back to reread it, though, I might change my mind.

The Handmaid's Tale, Alias Grace, Cat's Eye--all of these novels are great. Atwood's short stories are always short (a quality that many writers don't seem to possess), witty, and instructive. "Happy Endings," the ubiquitous short story found in every literature anthology known to human beings on a college campus, is one of my favorites. Given the choice, someone in a 25 person Intro to Lit course will always choose to write about it.

Hip hip hooray for Atwood!

Now I'm starting, at last, the fat fat Pynchon novel. It begins oddly (I'm one chapter in) with some Hardy Boyish banter about some kids in a hot air balloon.