Monday, February 11, 2013

Guerrilla Shelving

On Sunday, I did one of my favorite weekend activities: I went to the Book Thing*. I picked up some short story collections, a few novels, and, as I browsed the shelves in the romance section, my arms full of books, I found an impressive number of books that needed my rescuing.

From left to right, The Beet Queen, Love Medicine, A Thousand Acres, At Weddings and Wakes, and Pigs in Heaven.

In this imposing group of books, every single author has won or been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. These writers are all idols of mine (and one of them is my adviser ). So what do these books have in common with romance novels? The words “queen,” “marriage,” “love,” and “heaven” appear in the titles, which I guess helps them blend in with The Viscount Who Loved Me. (I have no idea what A Thousand Acres did to get included.) And, more importantly, they are all written by women.

I did not find a copy of Love in the Time of Cholera by Marquez or The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love by Hijuelos or What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Carver.

Feeling that these books deserved better, I gathered them to my bosom and moved them to the recommended reading shelves. It seemed only fair, especially as I have read all of these books and I do recommend them.

Now, this isn’t a post about how romance novels suck. Some are great and have filled my heart with chuckles and the joy of a love fulfilled. (I’m not kidding. Sometimes I like to read a happy book when literature gets to be a bit too much.) Many are terrible, and in some the writing is so bad I want to stab my eyes out. Much has been written about romance novels. What interested me, though, in that moment, was the constant fight of female literary authors to be taken as seriously as men.

In the end, I don’t think it’s about sexism (or at least not mostly about sexism). It’s about money. Romance novels are the bestselling genre of book. Chick lit is up there. Women buy way more fiction than men. As Ian McEwan said, “when women stop reading, the novel will be dead.” So if you write books and you are a woman, you (and your publisher) can make more money if your book has a pink cover than if it has a gray one. Your book, if it can be made to seem “feminine,” will be. It is an odd thought that, as a woman writer who aspires to write literary fiction, I will always have to argue that my books aren't feminine, shouldn't be categorized as being “for women,” while my male counterparts can take pride in the legacy of being a “masculine” writer or ignore that legacy and bash on Hemingway and write about the domestic sphere until they are blue in the face (and you do it beautifully, Franzen).

I’m not saying that the literary establishment thinks that Louise Erdrich writes romance novels. I am saying that as women writing, we "talk about love" at our peril.

*If you live in Baltimore and haven’t been to the Book Thing, you should go. The Book Thing receives book donations every day, 24/7, and then every Saturday and Sunday from 9 to 6 you can walk in and take as many books as you want, all of them free. It is an amazing operation and I've donated a lot of books to them (to make up for how many I've taken). This is not a blog post about how the Book Thing is anything but awesome. It is a post about women in writing. And guerrilla shelving.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Clap if You Believe

As I sat in the Brody Learning Commons (or "the Bro" as I've heard undergraduates refer to it), reading my book for class, blithely minding my own business, I reached into my bag for the Dove chocolate I had squirreled away. This is what my chocolate had to say to me:

"Calories only exist if you count them. Love, Dove."

Okay, as Jon Stewart would say after a particularly offensive Fox News clip, two things. One, calories are not like fairies. They exist whether you believe in them or not. No hand clapping is necessary. Don't patronize me.

Two, this is like telling someone, "Don't think about a pink elephant!" Thanks, Dove, with your stupid platitude, for making me think about counting calories when I should be thinking about this delicious piece of chocolate.


P.S. Thanks for the Bro, Mayor Bloomberg.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Adventures in Food: Gnocchi Edition

Tonight, I had a severe case of writer's block. And not just block, really. It was a full blown case of writer's aversion. I didn't like my writing at that particular moment (or myself, life, the universe, and everything [You know how writers are. Our frustrations are epic!]). I needed to take a step back and return to the simple things in life.

Enter: gnocchi recipe on my wonderful friend's blog, Matzo & Rice.

Electing to watching the Jets/Patriots game (go LT!) and make gnocchi from scratch instead of writing, here's what I did:

Gwen says, "Hurry up and boil, potatoes!"

Once the potatoes were boiled, I mashed up a cup of potatoes with butter and salt and pepper (per the very clear and excellent recipe). At this point I thought, why ruin delicious mashed potatoes by making them into a gnocchi that I will inevitably botch? But the Jets were pressing on, and so did I.

Next came the dough! One cup of flour was plenty. The directions said knead, so I punched it warily a few times, then decided if you could see my knuckle imprints in the dough, it was good enough. Then I shaped the gnocchi into bite sized bits and got a good man to make the gnocchi sauce:

Voila! Dinner!

Now I feel much happier about the world. If only that meant my story was done and winding its brilliant way to the New Yorker.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

New Year, New Books!

After an exciting day of scraping snow off my car, editing books, marveling at recalcitrant authors, and wending my way home behind cars still spitting off snow, I arrived home to find a package of books propped up against my front door! My Amazon shipment has arrived!

As I said in my new year's day post, I am excited for all the reading that I'm going to do in 2011. I am especially excited about pushing my boundaries a bit more than usual by venturing into the realm of short story collections in addition to novels (basically the only thing I read).

In the mail for me was:

Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri
A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguru
Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, by Maile Meloy
Best European Fiction 2011 (on my Kindle), edited by Aleksandar Hemon

Lahiri and Ishiguru have been on my radar for a long time, I've seen Jennifer Egan's book making a splash in book stores and reviews, and Meloy and the European fiction are short story collections that I bought out of a spirit of mad, unknowable adventure! This is how I go wild, okay? Five whole new books and they are all mine!

What new books are you reading in 2011? Any recommendations?

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Tom Rachman at Politics & Prose

Last night at Politics & Prose, Tom Rachman kicked off his book tour for the paperback release of The Imperfectionists. For the first night of his first ever book tour, he came across as at ease, thoughtful, and funny. Reading a long section of the book (something most authors, honestly, are not up to), he kept the audience engaged and laughing, doing a perfect American accent for the newspaper editor from Alabama, a credible stutter for the obit writer, and a lively tone during narration.

The Imperfectionists is a book I encountered after it was reviewed (glowingly) by the New York Times. Comical in the way Graham Greene books are comical (sometimes because the situation is absurd, often because the situation is quietly tragic), the book is about people who work for and read an English language newspaper in Rome. Each chapter is a different character’s story, starting from the inception of the newspaper, through its heyday, to its demise. Each character has his or her problems: too much ambition, too little, and so on, but you are made to love all of them. The writing is clear and concise, letting you see each person honestly for the coward, dreamer, or faker he is, but it increases instead of detracts from your empathy with him.

As far as I know, this book has not won or been short-listed for any prizes this year. Nor has it gotten the same kind of attention as Freedom (also mysterious missing from the National Book Award list). I have read both and enjoyed both books, but I would have to say that I loved The Imperfectionists while I enjoyed and respected Freedom. I’ve seen both Tom Rachman and Jonathan Franzen speak in the last year. Both are good speakers, both with a quick sense of humor.

The two books are hard to compare, as they differ greatly in scope and structure. But I would say that while Freedom at times gets lost in detailing the absurdities and failures of both characters and countries, The Imperfectionists is always stepping back to the next mundane task of getting the newspaper published, getting groceries in the refrigerator, getting a shower and shave before a dinner that still has some hope or promise. The characters always seem a moment away from perhaps, at long last, fulfilling the promise that every part-way decent person has, to make their lives better. In Freedom, the descent of the characters is, immediately, inevitable. It is simply slow, and very very artful. And the ending is barely redeeming.

If you haven’t read The Imperfectionists, please run out and buy it. He deserves your money and you deserve the experience of reading his book. If Tom Rachman is in your area soon giving a book talk, go out to see him. I’m sure he’ll be happy to see you!

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Happy New Year!

It's the first day of 2011 and, as eleven is my lucky number, I expect this to be an excellent year!

All the blogs I read are full of new year's resolutions, so here are mine:


My life is pretty simple. If I do those three things, I will be happy. If I don't do them, I won't be.

To make this a better writing year than last, I need to write every day. My writing group, a year old, will keep me on track. For reading, I need to be more intentional about what books I pick up to read. The end of 2010 got away from me (Outlander, anyone?), but my book orders for 2011 are already in and I am raring to go! First up: Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Running is just about going and, with my coworker and good friend by my side, I know I will. Nothing gets rid of stress for me like running.

Here's to another year of making myself happy and getting better at the things I love.

And here's to making a better looking carrot cake for 2012! First step: make sure the frosting doesn't look like Elmer's glue. Next step: steal the carrot cake recipe from the Carleton College bakery.

Happy New Year to all! If you have any resolutions yourselves, I'd love to know.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

In the Words of Friedrich Schiller, Good Night Carleton College!

For 99.9 percent of people who watch The Colbert Report on Comedy Central, the last four seconds of Monday night's show probably didn't make a lot of sense. Why is Stephen clutching a bust of Friedrich Schiller?

My boyfriend and I, both Carleton alums, sat up straight in our chairs, looked at each other, and asked, "Is that our Schiller? It is! It must be! How many hilarious busts of Schiller can possibly be in circulation?"

So a tip of my hat, as Stephen might say, to the intrepid Carl who got Mr. Schiller on the show. All hail the maize and blue!

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