Another New Month, Another New Open Letters!

RWA-300x242We did it again! A rich new issue of Open Letters Monthly is up, with something in it for every interest and taste. This month’s seems particularly good to me, and I don’t say that just because it includes four pieces for which I was the lead editor. A few highlights:

Victoria Olsen reports from the Romance Writers of American convention in NYC:

There are a lot of sexist assumptions behind the devaluation of the genre and its community . . . but here I’m most interested in the fact that these readers know all this already, they’ve heard it all before, and their pens are primed with rebuttals. The RWA convention made their self-awareness visible and explicit. These are women who know exactly what they are doing, who mean what they say, and who are willing and able to defend themselves.

Levi Stahl introduces us to Anthony Powell’s lesser-known novel Venusberg:

this is prose that is beginning to move like thought, to wend back in on itself and make discoveries along the way, an approach that will reach its apotheosis in the watchful narrative musings of Nick Jenkins in Dance. It also helps us begin to understand Powell’s protagonist, Lushington, revealing how observant he is, the first step toward helping us see him as something different from, and more thoughtful than, his giddier peers.

Alice Brittan examines Elena Ferrante’s phenomenally successful Neapolitan novels

I can think of many novelists whose prose is more startling or beautiful than Ferrante’s, whose plots and structures are more ingenious, whose anger at the systemic abuse of women and the poor is as explosive, whose depiction of motherhood is as unsentimental, and whose exposure of the hidden threads that turn the individual into the puppet of the state is as rigorous. But I don’t love most of their books like I love Ferrante’s, because they don’t make me feel what she does, which is that I am in the presence of “a bare and throbbing heart.”

Dorian Stuber adds to his growing body of work for us on Holocaust writing with his review of Jim Shephard’s The Book of Aron:

Children are always trying to decode a world that exceeds their understanding. Children in the Holocaust experienced this imperative in particularly powerful and perverse form. Where normal children wonder about life — where do babies come from? — these children wondered about death — what is happening to my world? Shepard suggests that a child’s point of view both incites and stymies readers’ ability to comprehend an overwhelming, traumatic event like the Holocaust. Children offer a powerful metaphor for the bewilderment and fear that adults too — both then and now — experience in the face of something like the Ghetto.

And that’s definitely not all: James Ross looks critically at the TV adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire; Stephen Akey thinks back on the book that transformed his idea of what it meant to be a reader; Steve Donoghue reviews a history of the world’s most famous chessmen; Dan Green reviews a book on the strange art of literary biography; and that is still not all — so go on over and explore for yourself.

I have a writing deadline that may keep things a bit quiet around Novel Readings for the next little while. But I’m also reading Maus, and hope to have a chance to put some thoughts together about it after that, and classes start for me at the end of next week, so the new season of “This Week In My Classes” will also be kicking into gear.

A Taste of Nova Scotia

My lovely mother has been visiting us, and today we went exploring a bit. I don’t like highway driving (or really any driving, though of course I do what I have to), so I was happy to find an article about fun things to do around Halifax without a car. One suggestion was taking the bus out to Fisherman’s Cove. Here are a few pictures of this lovely spot. They will remind me, when I get cranky in a few months about being trapped in the winter hell-hole that is Halifax, that there are nice things about being in Nova Scotia!








Also, if you actually do want a “taste” of Nova Scotia, this is the book for you.

“A Real Book”: Barbara Comyns, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths


This book does not seem to be growing very large although I have got to Chapter Nine. I think this is partly because there isn’t any conversation. I could just fill pages like this:

‘I am sure it is true,’ said Phyllida.

‘I cannot agree with you,’ answered Norman.

‘Oh, but I know I am right,’ she replied.

‘I beg to differ,’ said Norman sternly.

This is the kind of stuff that appears in real people’s books. I know this will never be a real book that business men in trains will read, the kind of business men that wear stiff hats with curly brims and little breathing holes let in the side. I wish I knew more about words. Also I wish so much I had learnt my lessons at school. I never did, and have found this such a disadvantage ever since. All the same, I am going on writing this book even if business men scorn it.

It is very tempting to fit Barbara Comyns’s strange, sad novel of Bohemian poverty and domestic distress into the ongoing literary sparring match between Jonathan Franzen and Jennifer Weiner. Just as I was settling in to write this post, for instance, I followed a link from Weiner’s twitter feed to Christian Lorentzen’s New York Magazine review of Franzen’s Purity in which he calls Weiner a “best-selling but subliterary novelist.” If he meant to say Weiner does not write what is commonly (if, for some, controversially) called “literary fiction,” he’s probably right. If he meant that her novels are not “great literature,” he’s probably right about that too. But the term “subliterary” is not just hierarchical, it’s deliberately confrontational: Weiner’s novels are below literature, less than literature, beneath (it surely follows) serious consideration, or certainly the serious consideration that (love him or hate him) Franzen inevitably gets. Weiner’s novels are not “real books”; they are the kind “business men” scorn. (The implications for the readers who have made Weiner a bestseller are no more complimentary.)

All the same, Weiner keeps on writing her books, just as the narrator of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths keeps on writing hers. Both, it seems, have their own bookish mission that doesn’t depend on the approval of men in hats. Does that mean that they both write “women’s fiction“? Is that fiction for women or fiction about  women, or some third thing — perhaps, fiction that feels a certain way, or faces in a certain direction — or is the category an artificial imposition, not a real thing at all, though the label persists — and has its side-effects, many of them undesirable?

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths has many of the qualities often (usually pejoratively) assumed to define women’s fiction: it is undemanding in both scope and style, focused on the domestic and romantic life of its protagonist, Sophia. “I told Helen my story and she went home and cried,” is its unexpected and enticing beginning; that story turns out to be the story of Sophia’s unhappy, impoverished marriage to Charles, a dedicated but unsuccessful painter. The novel follows her through three pregnancies, an affair, a divorce, and an eventually happy remarriage. But if one supposedly defining quality of women’s fiction is a feel-good sentimentality, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths rather confounds expectations. It’s not that the novel is consistently grim or tragic, but the private life it depicts is — uncomfortable, is the best word I can think of.

“Frank” is another word that fits well. I was surprised, for instance, at how bluntly Comyns described the misery of Sophia’s first labor and delivery:

Two nurses came and examined me. I heard one say it would be about two hours before the baby came. Two more hours seemed an awful long time. The pains got much worse again, and I tried saying ‘Lord Marmion’, but they told me to be quiet. I longed to cry out, but knew they would be angry, so bit my hands. There are still the scars on them now. My hands seemed to smell of Grapenuts and I remembered a white dog we used to have when we were children and she kept having puppies all the time — I felt very sorry for her now. They gave me a bowl to be sick in and I managed not to get any on the bed, but without any warning the wicked castor oil acted and I was completely disgraced. The nurse was so angry. She said I should set a good example and that I had disgusting habits. I just felt a great longing to die and escape, but instead I walked behind the disgusted nurse, all doubled up with shame and pain.

At least this unpleasantness has a happy ending, but Sophia’s second pregnancy turns into a much sadder tale, as Charles says “he wouldn’t give up his painting for beastly babies” and pressures her into having an abortion:

I don’t feel much like writing about the actual operation. It was horrible, and did not work at all as it should. I couldn’t go to hospital, because we would all have gone to prison if I had. Even the doctor did his best to help me recover, although he was scared stiff to come near me when he saw it had all gone wrong, but eventually I became better. But my mind didn’t recover at all. I felt all disgusted and that I had been cheated from having my baby.

spoons2If Charles were an unappreciated genius, his absolute refusal to put his painting anything but first would be, if not forgivable, at least interesting: what price genius, in a prosaic world of bills and nappies? But we never get any hint that Charles excels at anything except being selfish, so when Sophia gets involved with the “tall, dark, sinister” art critic Peregrine Narrow, it seems a pretty reasonable move: for one thing, Peregrine “listened most intently to every word I said, as if it was very precious,” which is certainly an attractive quality.The first time they make love, Sophia “felt quite bewildered” by the experience of pleasure: “I had had one and a half children, but had been a kind of virgin all the time.”

Things don’t work out with Peregrine, but they also don’t work out with Charles, who eventually abandons his family entirely. “I am very fond of you,” he tells Sophia,

but I loath this domestic life. The children are quite beautiful, but they don’t mean a thing to me. I don’t feel like a father and have never wanted to be one. I may be inhuman and selfish, but I must be, life is so short, and the young part of our lives is going so quickly. I must be free to enjoy it and not be weighted down by all these responsibilities.

Sophia astutely diagnosis him with “a kind of Peter Pan complex,” but it’s no practical use understanding his skewed perceptions: she’s still on her own. A particularly sad sequence follows that culminates in the death of her little daughter from scarlet fever. Then things take a turn for the better, though it takes Sophia a while (understandably) to care. The quiet domestic happiness she finds at the end of the novel hardly feels triumphant after the poverty and suffering that has gone before, but the ending nicely conveys the bittersweet pleasure of being happy after being sad: “It was a waste to talk about such distressing subjects on a lovely spring afternoon,” Sophia thinks when her friend Helen asks to know her story — but she answers, and, as she says, bringing us neatly back to where we began, “that is really how I came to write this story.”

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is not a very interesting book stylistically: there’s nothing showy or elegant or poetic or complex about its sentences, which follow one another with a kind of journalistic inevitability: this happened, then this, then this, then this. For me, the interest of its writing lay in its tone, which seemed flat, almost affectless, except for the occasional drift into a kind of wry humor, as when Sophia’s description of Peregrine’s rapt attention doubles back to undo the compliment she initially took it as:

This had never happened to me before, and gave me great confidence in myself, but now I know from experience a lot of men listen like that, and it doesn’t mean a thing; they are most likely thinking up a new way of getting out of paying their income-tax.

I don’t think Sophia is sly or unreliable, but she often gives the sense that there is more to her story than she is telling us — emotionally, not literally. I think that’s because of her retrospective narration. As she tells as at the outset, after all, she’s happy now: “I seldom think of the time when I was called Sophia Fairclough; I try and keep it pushed right at the back of my mind.” Though she’s recalling her unhappy past, she’s also, paradoxically, repressing it, minimizing her feelings about it. The overall effect is unstable or uneasy, then, rather than unreliable. The elements of the book that are most concrete are the material ones: it is extremely specific about, for instance, how far a pound or two does or doesn’t go when you’re trying to house, clothe, and feed a family of three or four. Sophia herself only becomes really distinct as a character at the end of the book. She works as an artist’s model for most of it, which aptly reflects the insignificance of her own perspective and agency in directing her life. Near the end of the novel, she finally looks intently at herself in a mirror. “I looked almost beautiful,” she says, and somehow it seems about time.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is definitely a novel about a woman, then, and about the physical and psychological experience of being a woman. There’s no reason that should be a particularly comfortable kind of fiction (if anything, as history teaches us, it hasn’t usually been a comfortable — or comforting — experience at all) — but if that’s what the label “women’s fiction” means to most people, it definitely doesn’t apply in this case. I kind of think it should apply, though, if only to destabilize the marketing category. The downside would be that if we called it that, men in hats might not read it. They should, though: it’s a real book, though a strange one, and what’s fiction for, if not to be at least sometimes estranging?

Appearing Elsewhere: “Middlemarch and the ‘Cry From Soul to Soul'”

Dorothea_and_Will_LadislawAn essay I worked on during my sabbatical on faith and fellowship in Middlemarch has just been published in Berfrois. The general themes will not surprise any regular visitors to Novel Readings (or readers of my other essays on George Eliot, particularly my essay on Silas Marner in the Los Angeles Review of Books). In fact, the germ of this essay was a blog post I wrote years ago on George Eliot and prayer; ever since then I have wanted to expand those passing comments into a fuller reading of Middlemarch along those lines, and now I have!

I’ve also written about Middlemarch in a somewhat less consoling way, in my essay on the novel’s “miserable morality” at Open Letters Monthly.

“Up to the wall”: Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries

stonediariesI don’t really understand why I didn’t like The Stone Diaries this time. Did I reread it at the wrong moment for me, somehow? I admired lots of pieces of it as I was reading, but my overall experience of it was that it was too miscellaneous: that it incorporated too many elements that ended up feeling random, that as a novel it felt piecemeal instead of designed. That may in fact have been Shields’s concept, since I think a lot of what the novel is about is how difficult it is to capture “a life” — even if you are the one living it. Not only is Daisy’s own story shot through with unease about her identity, but the reflections we get about her from other people show misunderstandings, misinterpretations, but also readings of her — theories, as one section of the novel calls them — that might well be as accurate as her own theory of herself.

Already, as I try to write about the novel, it starts to feel more interesting than it did while I was reading it. Is that a problem, if it’s that kind of a book, a book that is driven forward more by a concept than by the kind of momentum that comes from following a strong narrative of a more old-fashioned kind? The Stone Diaries is another in the ‘soup-to-nuts’ genre: I was reminded, reading it, of A God in Ruins as well as of My Real Children. By the end — despite its greater fragmentation — it has something of the same inevitable poignancy: a life lived, a life worn out, a life ending, ended. “Something has occurred to her,” thinks Daisy’s daughter Alice at the end of one of her visits to her fading mother:

something transparently simple, something she’s always known, it seems, but never articulated. Which is that the moment of death occurs while we’re still alive. Life marches right up to the wall of that final darkness, one extreme state of being butting against the other. Not even a breath separates them. Not even a blink of the eye. A person can go on and on tuned in to the daily music of food and work and weather and speech right up to the last minute, so that not a single thing gets lost.

The Stone Diaries does give us a strong sense of that “daily music” of life, but it also divides it into acts and self-consciously jangles those “single things” in our ears right up to its own last minute — most of all, in fact, during those final pages. I think it might be that self-consciousness, actually, that kept me aloof from the book as a whole, even though I paused frequently to retrace sentences I particularly liked.

I feel as if my business with The Stone Diaries is unfinished: perhaps some of my own current restlessness put me at odds with it. At any rate, I have at least reread it now, so that’s one more in my review of Shields’ oeuvre as I prepare to teach Unless again this fall.

This Week in Class Prep: Syllabus Season

escher12It’s that time of year again for academics around here: the fall term is closing in, and that means it’s time to finalize the syllabi for our classes.

For me, this is a process that generates equal parts enthusiasm and irritation. I enjoy the optimism of course planning: it’s fun to anticipate the intellectual sparks that can fly if you juxtapose readings in a clever way; it’s exciting to review the readings themselves and be reminded of how interesting and provocative and artful they are; it’s challenging to think hard about what you hope students will learn and practice and achieve in a class, and then to tweak and add and structure assignment sequences and course requirements that you believe will support those goals.

At the same time, it is frustrating trying to formulate class policies that often have little to do with those educational goals and a lot to do with managing student behavior and expectations — not to mention anticipating complaints and appeals. Rebecca Schuman is right that once upon a time, a course syllabus was a much more minimalist document. I still have the one-page (mimeographed!) outlines distributed at the outset of my own undergraduate classes. Things they usually didn’t include: attendance policies; policies on late assignments; statements on plagiarism and academic integrity; deadlines for (or detailed information about) course assignments; explanations of course objectives or ‘learning outcomes’ … the list could go on.

I actually think there are good reasons to include most of these things — I think it’s progress, not a problem, that (for instance) it is now standard to include information about accessibility and accommodation and many of the other support systems in place to help students succeed, while expanding our syllabi to explain academic matters in more detail implicitly acknowledges that students arrive in a classroom from a range of backgrounds. A lot of what used to be taken for granted shouldn’t have been assumed then either. Just saying, as Schuman suggests (facetiously, of course, as is her style, but also with some serious intent) that “what you need is to learn and learn well” is to mystify both the process and the goals of our work in an unproductive way. I also find it very helpful, just in practical terms, to have a common document we can all turn to when there’s a question about how the class operates. Everyone, I always point out (especially when being asked for special treatment), is bound by the terms of the syllabus, including me.

At the same time, I worry that the more we try to spell everything out, the more we unintentionally send the message that anything not made explicit in the syllabus does not apply. And I get frustrated at some of the things it now seems to be necessary to spell out. Why should I need to tell students that they are expected to attend class, do the readings, and turn in their assignments? What else would they think is required of them? Indeed, why else did they register in the course in the first place? Why, too, does my individual syllabus have to reiterate the terms of university-wide policies, as if (and indeed, this can turn out to be the finding, on appeal) a student isn’t bound by Dalhousie’s policies on plagiarism if I didn’t say so in so many words? Where is the role of common sense, in some of this, and of basic respect — not just for everyone else in the classroom, but for the underlying purpose of the whole enterprise? So much of my syllabus is actually aimed, not at the students working in good faith to make as much of the opportunity as they can (and occasionally needing some consideration, because life happens), but at students who would rather not — not do the reading, not show up, not do preparatory work that will make their longer assignments better, not, not, not … unless I coerce them. I try to make the syllabus a positive document, but 20 years of teaching has taught me that it is most needed in the negative situations.

One of the things I had to do for my promotion file (now, thank goodness, all assembled) was collect copies of the syllabi for every class I’ve taught at Dalhousie since I started here in 1995. It was more interesting than I expected, looking them over. I haven’t changed my approach dramatically: I’ve always tried to be clear, specific, and detailed. The tone has varied somewhat, though, as I have experimented with being more formal or more friendly, more rule-oriented or more goal-oriented. At this point I don’t think there is one right way of writing a syllabus. (I’m also very aware that context makes a big difference: for instance, this instructor has a lot more control than I do over who joins her class and when — our add-drop period is over 2 weeks long, and students do not need my permission to enroll, so I have to think about students’ relationship to the syllabus differently. Also, and this is just personal, I guess, I hate the idea of spending that much time reading a boring document aloud. I prefer to hit on the key points then come back to larger issues of purpose and motivation over the term, as we approach different tasks.) The only rule I’d stand behind absolutely is clarity — both in how you actually write the document and in how you understand and communicate its purpose to your class. I now think of the syllabus as one important part of the scaffolding of a successful course. Ideally, it’s both stable and open enough that you and your students can rely on it and yet go beyond it to the real course content.

If you’re curious what my current fall syllabi look like, I’ve posted drafts of them here (and last fall’s are here).

“Links with the Past”: Arnaldur Indriðason, Silence of the Grave


He no longer heard any tales, and they became lost to him. All his people were gone, forgotten and buried in deserted rural areas. He, in turn, drifted through a city that he had no business being in. Knew that he was not the urban type. Could not really tell what he was. But he never lost his yearning for a different life, felt rootless and uncomfortable, and sensed how his last links with the past evaporated when his mother died.

I finished my second Arnaldur Indriðason novel, Silence of the Grave, last night. The Girl on the Train  is supposedly a “page-turner” but I read Silence of the Grave with much more rapt attention: it’s smarter, darker, and infinitely more gripping. It was almost too dark: there’s always something uncomfortable about being entertained by suffering, and at the center of Silence of the Grave is a tragic account of an abusive relationship in which the brutal physical violence is almost less harrowing than what the victim’s daughter calls the “soul murder” it causes. “She turned out to be like these bushes,” the daughter reflects about her mother:

They’re particularly hardy, they withstand all kinds of weather and the harshest winters, but they’re always green and beautiful again in the summer, and the berries they produce are just as red and juicy as if nothing had ever happened. As if winter had ever come.

The hope that things will turn green and flower and bear fruit again is hard to sustain in this relentlessly grim novel, not only through the history of this tortured family and its eventual, inevitable, cataclysm but through the time we spend with Inspector Erlendur and his family in the present. I noted that in Jar City I didn’t get much sense of Erlendur as a character. Here Indriðason made up for that, most notably through a bleak monologue delivered by Erlendur to his comatose daughter. This speech reveals in both words and tone much more about him, especially how he came to be the man he is, in the place he now has in the world. (There’s also a painful scene with his ex-wife that made Wallander’s family life seem positively tranquil.) The novel’s various elements all illuminate the ways in which families cause each other pain: the case under investigation may be an extreme, but the question the beaten wife asks applies to all of them: “What makes people like that?”

Inevitably, Erlendur’s work forces him to confront the causes as well as the consequences of people’s capacity for cruelty. That hardly makes for light reading, but I’m impressed that Indriðason presents this difficult material without turning us into voyeurs — which was my experience of reading The Girl on the Train, that it stimulated a kind of tasteless curiosity about how bad things were or might get. There’s nothing prurient about Silence of the Grave. There’s nothing slick or glamorous about its violence or its story, either. Indriðason lets it all be ugly, which is horrible but also true. I might be reluctant to read another of his books, though, if he hadn’t ended this one with just a hint of hope.

Recent Reading: Romance, Reykjavik, and Relatives

In among my other recent chores and challenges I’ve read a few things chosen primarily for their likely distraction value. I don’t have a whole post’s worth of comments on any of them but I thought I’d round them up here, just to sort out my impressions of them.

juliejamesFirst, two romance novels: Julie James’s Suddenly One Summer and Meredith Duran’s Fool Me Twice. I really liked Suddenly One Summer. It’s more subdued than her others, but for me that was a plus. I still find it mildly annoying that all of her main characters are so relentlessly gorgeous, but the heroine’s anxiety issues in this one were both realistically and sympathetically conveyed, I thought, and I liked that the story line overall focused less on overcoming cynicism (which is often the core problem in James’s other novels) and more on taking risks and learning to trust. Fool Me Twice, on the other hand, ended up a ‘DNF’ for me. It was my first Meredith Duran, and the problem I had with it is the same I’ve had so far with the Courtney Milan novels I’ve tried: for me (and obviously others respond very differently) there was just too much of it. What I’ve found so far is that the longer and more ostensibly complex a romance novel gets, the more judgmental I get about whether it’s really a very good novel, rather than just an enjoyable read, and in these cases, I started finding the books tedious. With Fool Me Twice, I just couldn’t believe in either main character, and yet the novel went on and on about them. I am going to give Courtney Milan another try: I’ve been on the library waiting list for The Suffragette Scandal for a while and my turn just came up. And maybe there’s a Duran that would suit me better: I’m open to suggestions.

jarcityFollowing up on recommendations from both Miss Bates and Dorian, I’ve just finished my first Arnaldur Indridason mystery, Jar City. (When possible, I always prefer to start at the beginning of a series, even if it might not be the best of the bunch, because that way I’m not missing any pieces.) It took a while to get going, and at first I thought it was a bit too blandly reminiscent of Henning Mankell: is it perhaps an effect of the translations that so many of these northern crime novels sound so much the same? I got drawn in by the case, though, which proved genuinely interesting in ways that seemed quite original to me: I did not expect the story to unfold the way it did, or the motive for the crime to be quite what it was. It provoked some good questions about what counts as justice, but also about families, genealogies, and data — specifically, in this case, data about our genetic inheritance, which is going to be an increasingly pressing ethical issue, I expect. I didn’t get much of a feel for Erlendur himself: he didn’t seem terribly distinctive as a character. But I’ve got Silence of the Grave ready to read next, and maybe as I get to know him I’ll see him more clearly.

trollopeFinally, after being disappointed in Joanna Trollope’s Balancing Act, I decided to reread her earlier novel Marrying the Mistress, which I remembered thinking was excellent (and which I had been thinking of as also fairly recent but which turns out to be from 2000). I can’t quite put my finger on what makes Marrying the Mistress so much better — but it is. It is structurally very similar: it takes a family with a complex and carefully balanced set of relationships and changes the dynamic by introducing a dramatic change, in this case the husband-and-father’s decision to leave his wife of 40 years in order to marry the much younger woman he’s been having an affair with. It’s a cliched scenario but Trollope makes it feel very specific to these people, at this moment in their lives. She also plays in unexpected ways with our sympathies and with her characters’ loyalties; she discovers, for us, ways in which getting what you want, or what you think you want, might be very different than what you expect, as well as ways in which unwanted change, change that’s unkindly forced on you, might be right, and liberating, as well as painful. She’s very savvy about family loyalties and how people push and pull at each other. It’s not a very happy book, but it’s definitely a book about love.

I also read The Girl on the Train last week — but I’m going to be writing about that for an Open Letters feature so I won’t say more about it here.

Coloring Books … for Adults? Sure, Why Not.

coloringbooksI’ve watched the recent craze for “adult” coloring books with a mixture of amusement and nostalgia. While some people are celebrating the idea as both creative and consoling, others find it one more sign of the infantilization of our culture. For me, it brings back a lot of memories of family camping trips: coloring books and markers were necessary camping gear for us, along with Scrabble, cribbage, and my dad’s guitar. As I recall, it wasn’t only the children who colored, though I think for the grownups it was more a way of keeping us company than a choice they would have made left entirely to themselves. I’ve held on to and sometimes gone back to my collection of coloring books over the years, and all this fuss has had me thinking that it might be kind of fun to get them out again. In fact, I bought some new markers last weekend (OK, I admit it, I couldn’t resist the back-to-school displays, even though in principle I abhor that they were out as early as July). Maybe a little coloring is just what I need to get me out of my slump!

The coloring books that set off this recent fad are pretty different from mine, though. As you can see from the photos, mine are not abstract or flowery but historical and (though I didn’t realize this about them until recently) political. It was the 1970s when I got them, after all — and, though this too was not something I understood at the time, I had pretty progressive parents (the kind who bought us “Free to Be You and Me” and then, later, Our Bodies, Ourselves, both of which in those days were new and radical). They also never, as far as I recall, stood between us and any book we were interested in reading, which for me meant that I was deep into Jean Plaidy’s historical novels at an early age — not to mention Gone with the Wind (my changing relationship with which I wrote about at length at Open Letters a few years back).

IMG_0416That historical interest explains why two of my favorite coloring books were Tudor ones: Henry VIII & His Wives and Queen Elizabeth I. Both are actually designed as paper dolls, though we rarely cut the figures and outfits out. I do have a loose cut-out of Elizabeth in the “Walsingham dress,” however, even though that picture (done in an entirely color different scheme) is still in my book: we must have had two copies of it at some point. Maybe my sister and I each had one. (Sarah! did I steal your Gloriana paper doll? sorry!) As I recall, I got the Kings and Queens of England book a bit later; I seem to have been taking the coloring more seriously then, as most of the pictures that have been filled in are done fairly carefully according to the information given about the colors of the actual portraits they are taken from — as with this earnest rendition of Richard III (my hero!), which I signed (!) and dated in 1980:


It’s the two coloring books of famous women that strike me as particularly interesting now, though — or, I should say, the book of “great” women and its evil twin, the book of “infamous” women. The childish printing of my name in the former suggests I got it not that long after its publication date (1974); it opens with Sappho and includes Cleopatra, Boudicca, Lady Murasaki, Joan of Arc, Pocahontas, Amelia Earhart, Susan B. Anthony, Bessie Smith, and Marie Curie, among others. All come with brief biographical notes and usually a literary quotation or two. Infamous Women is copyright 1976; it opens with Semiramis (naked, just by the way) and follows with Messalina, Queen Isabella, Margaret of Anjou, Lucrezia Borgia (of course!), Charlotte Corday, George Sand (?), and Mata Hari. This book has full page biographies for every woman: “Isabelle of Bavaria made herself the most hated queen that France ever had,” begins one; “Naples has had many cruel rulers, but the Neapolitans boast particularly of wicked Queen Joanna: she had, they say, many lovers, killed when she tired of them, and many husbands treated similarly.” What’s not to boast of, indeed?

What interesting artifacts these books are. Recently I joined in a bit of a communal Twitter rant about this piece on women’s “forgotten history”: forgotten by whom, is a reasonable question? Women’s history is actually a pretty venerable field now, so I think the real (if inadvertent) point is not that it is forgotten so much as that the writer, and apparently the authors she interviewed, took their own relative ignorance of women’s history as definitive. The wheel they’re busy reinventing wasn’t brand new in 1974 either (my first book is just one of several scholarly works looking at women’s history in the 19th-century) but second-wave feminism helped turn it into a vast and vital area of research. It’s easy to see Great Women as part of this feminist reclamation of the past, yet the pit-and-pedestal pairing of it with Infamous Women shows that simply bringing women into the story doesn’t necessarily transform the story itself: much depends on the underlying assumptions the facts are used in service of. There’s no doubt, though, that these coloring books are one way that I learned that history was not just the story of great men.

That, plus the nudity and the accompanying stories of sexual misdemeanors and often quite chilling violence (my parents clearly did not worry at all about corrupting my young mind, for which I sincerely thank them) means that my childhood coloring books were pretty adult fare to begin with! Now: should I start in on Eleanor of Aquitaine (quick: guess which book she’s in), or bring poor pallid uncolored Jane Seymour out from the shadow of the ever-dominant Anne Boleyn?


By the way, I am more than thrilled to discover that Bellerophon still carries these coloring books! If enchanted forests aren’t your thing, you can order your own copy of Infamous Women and have some fun with cruel Queen Joanna yourself.

Not a Very Good Week

I’m in a slump — a writing slump, mostly, but (and relatedly) also an emotional slump. I will come out of it, I’m sure, but so far I haven’t figured out exactly how. Some of it is my usual summertime blues, which have been exacerbated this year by how grey and rainy it has been here. Some of it is discouragement about the writing I did over my sabbatical, which right now seems to have led only to dead ends. Some of it is frustration because the teaching tasks I turned to, to cheer myself up by at least getting something concrete done, haven’t gone that well. For instance, twice while I was entering my long list of reserve readings for my fall graduate seminar the library’s form timed out on me after I’d put in all the information — which is a painstaking process, believe me! (Third time’s the charm, thank goodness.)

That’s small potatoes, though, compared to discovering that the work I’d put in on my Blackboard site for my fall intro class has been completely wiped out (my section was mistakenly reset instead of someone else’s). I can do it all again — I’ll have to, obviously. But what is torturing me at the moment is that back in June, when I last worked on the site, I had hit on what I thought was a really good way not just of reorganizing the course materials but of explaining and introducing them: after several tries, I’d found a tone and wording that I thought hit just the note I wanted. And now, of course, I can’t remember exactly what I’d said and done. No doubt it was not perfect in some ideal way, but in my mind now there will always be an imagined but inaccessible Better Version. Working on Blackboard is so fun, too: who wouldn’t want to spend more time on it! That will teach me to start early.

Then there’s the Amazing Disappearing Notebook. For every seminar class I teach, I use a spiral-bound notebook for preparing my own class notes and for taking notes during discussion. I have a shelf full of these notebooks! It is very helpful to leaf through previous versions of them when prepping for a new iteration of a course, so naturally I went looking for my notebook from the last time I taught my grad seminar on George Eliot — and it is nowhere to be found. I have emptied filing cabinets and shelves and done all the insane things you do when you are sure something is in the room but you can’t see it anywhere. It’s not as if I absolutely need it: I wasn’t going to actually use it for teaching the class this time. But I really would have liked to have it as a prompt and a reminder! So, one more small source of frustration that adds to my cumulative feeling of failure.

On all these fronts and more, the fix is simple, in theory at least: I need to take a deep breath and just get back to work. I need to commit to a new writing project and stop second-guessing its interest or value; I need to get the darned Blackboard site back into shape, even if it isn’t the perfect shape; I need to finish drafting my syllabi and handouts and organizing reserve materials and rereading key materials so I’m ready for the first day. I need — and this one is harder — to return to my sabbatical writing and figure out (again) how to shape and direct it. I will do all of these things. In my entire life, I have actually never not done the things required of me — so there’s that to remember, when I exacerbate my slump by criticizing my own lack of resilience and lapses in productivity.

did get my application for promotion completed, so that’s one (pretty big) thing crossed off my list. I suppose that means this is not a good time to mope in public! Someone in a position to (and with a mandate to) judge might be watching. As I’ve said before, though, I think it’s misleading to pretend everything’s going swimmingly all of the time. Who knows: my discouragement might actually end up being perversely encouraging for someone else who is also feeling stymied. It happens! You’re not alone. We’ll get past it.

Update: I went for a walk, then got some small but necessary things done (finished a draft syllabus, did final edits on a submission for Open Letters, played around with my book order for a winter-term course). I feel a bit better. Maybe tomorrow I might even be ready to tackle some of the big things!


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