Tuesday, January 17, 2017

marvelous emotional equipment

I started this post yonks ago (shortly after I finished it in March), and didn't get much further than copying out a few of my favorite quotations, but in the interest of getting it out of my drafts folder...


“When should we start allowing what those people think to guide our publishing, or the tempo of our publishing? We certainly have to have a decent respect for the opinions of mankind, as the document [the Declaration of Independence] said, but we certainly can’t start now to let them tell us what to do and what not to do, or give us guidance as to what we publish and when….I don’t expect creative artists who do books for children to think about children all the time. They never do—the really great ones—because they do what they do for themselves. (I am certainly at my most banal this morning, I’m sorry.) But have to worry about the children. I mean, we, here in the department. And the fact that we have published children’s books for children (not other adults) and that we have NEVER NEVER NEVER been inhibited by ‘will this bore adults, will this expose us to cynical criticism’ makes it impossible for me not to go on like this to you.”
-- Letter to Maurice Sendak, 1/31/1963

Ursula Nordstrom worked with some of the best children's author's in the mid-twentieth century and was responsible for bringing so freaking many classics into the world. Stuart Little? Check. Where the Wild Things Are? Check. Danny and the Dinosaur? Check. Frances? Check.

Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom was such a delightful glimpse into the publishing world, especially the publishing world of children's books in the mid-1900s. She never condescended to her audience, and she fought the disapproving pearl-clutchers of her day. She led the push in children's publishing away from simplistic morality tales toward genuinely great story-telling.

Nordstrom is the most delightful blend of crochety and tender in her letters -- willing to overlook the quirks of authors so long as they continued to produce, no matter how slowly. She coaxes and scolds in equal measure. She herself wrote what would now be called a young adult novel, so she knew their pain personally.
“I know darn well some of the authors will think it very unattractive for their editor to have written anything. But as a matter of fact trying to do it has made me a slightly better and enormously more sympathetic editor!”
-- Letter to Bettina Ehrlich, 2/11/1960

Nordstrom was the first female vice president AND female director that Harper's had, and she fought the typically sexist views you'd expect from the male-dominated publishing world of the time.
“I phoned Morely Safer’s office and asked when the segment with you would be telecast on 60 Minutes. I am tired of having to watch the whole program every minute every week! The young woman who answered said the interview was still being edited and thus had not been scheduled, but she took my name and phone number and said she would let me know when it was definitely scheduled. ‘Now whose secretary are you?’ she asked pleasantly—female chauvinistic sow. ‘I am Mr. Sendak’s editor,’ I said with simple dignity. I don’t plan to be buried but it would be nice on my tombstone…. ‘She was Mr. Sendak’s editor.’”
-- Letter to Maurice Sendak, 2/16/1973

 She was relentless and unstoppable, and I really want a poster of her to put on my wall now.

Monday, January 2, 2017


I didn't intend to take a nine-month hiatus. Between work and weddings and grad school angst and a general mental fug, though, that's what happened. I'm in the middle of grad school applications, the job hasn't gotten much better (or worse, honestly, but I am beginning the process of shaking its dust from my feet). I have started to feel the blogging itch again. I miss this stupid little space and its avenues for bookish rambling and life venting. I'm not sure exactly how it will fit back into my life -- no promises about future regularity, but I've not kept them in the past anyway -- but I do want to muck about here again. My writing-for-pleasure skills are a little rusty, so have a bullet-point list of things that happened this year

  • two brothers got married (and now the pressure's on them to pop out grandchildren, rather than the older three of us indiscriminately)
  • one half-assed attempt to take a short story writing course
  • the GRE
  • grad school applications (MA in English); two down, two to go
  • I joined Toastmasters! It has been hard but enjoyable with a lot of stretching
  • one trip to NYC
  • a new car
  • my mom had major surgery; my dad lost his job (both are fine now)
Fortunately death has been pretty non-localized, and I'm not touching the election results with a thirty-foot pole. Thanksgiving brought only one unpleasantly political moment with me contra my relations, and I aim to keep the last Christmas gathering next weekend as apolitical as that or more.

I've taken various stabs at New Year's resolutions with mostly middling results -- some improvement, never nearly as much as I wanted it to be on Jan. 1. I'm also the kind of person who needs to put a checkmark in the vast majority of boxes or I start losing momentum pretty quickly. I do want to be better at budgeting and meal planning, which fits into my general mid-year resolution to be better at adulting (a mixed bag, but it's the main reason I'm actually applying to grad schools rather than just talking about it). 

My sort-of mantra right now is encapsulated by this picture of a cake I have set as my desktop background right now with "Make it happen" iced on top. I want to actually do the things I talk about doing rather than letting my interest and desire die as a topic of conversation. This is most certainly a thing I've said more than once, but this time I've actually taken steps to solidify it as a habit in my life. I've just held off on an unnecessary clothes purchase, so let's say I started the year on the right foot.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

a beautiful, reasonable, intelligent head

"Your letter about Kennedy was great. Even the typing. Yes, it is utterly unacceptable and we have to accept it. Unbearable and we have to believe it. Etc. it doesn't get any less incredible. I was sitting here talking to an out-of-town artist, and a couple of people came to my door and said the president had been shot, and I explained that the radio always got things all wrong, and exaggerated, and then I went back to the out-of-town artist, and then others came to my door and said it was his head, and I explained carefully that he was a very strong extremely healthy person, and just a little old shot couldn't possibly be serious, and then someone came and said the president is dead, and I felt terribly angry that anyone would say anything so ridiculous. I always thought that scene in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra where Cleopatra gets so damn mad at the messenger over the content of the message is silly. But that day I saw, again, Shakespeare is infallible...We closed office and I walked up Park Avenue and saw flags at half-mast and wept all the way home. I was watching t.v. when Ruby walked up and shot Oswald. The ultimate nightmare. I felt the whole country unraveling. I still feel it. I've always believed in an idiotic way that the ultimate perfectibility was perfectly possible, it would only take a lot of patience, but you know, the children will be better than their parents, and their children will be still better, and wiser, and the children of THOSE children will be better still. But I don't believe it any more. Anyone can have a surly crazy son who can hoist a cheap rifle and put a bullet in a beautiful, reasonable, intelligent head."

-- Ursula Nordstrom in a December 26, 1963 letter to Kay Thompson
from Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom

Nordstrom was a long-time editor/head of the children's department at Harper starting in the 40s and going up until, golly, the 70s? She ended up on the board in the 50s (the first woman to do so) and was the company's first female vice president in 1960. She worked with some of the greatist children's authors and illustrators -- Maurice Sendak, E. B. White, Garth Williams, Ruth Krauss -- the first letter in the collection was to Laura Ingalls Wilder. She was a boss lady all around, and I am enjoying this collection immensely.

Friday, March 11, 2016

pushing boundaries

I'm just finishing up a fiction class at the Loft, which I took because I've been thinking about doing something there ever since I graduated from college, and I swore 2016 was going to be the year I finally, finally started doing the things I'd always talked about doing because three years after college is enough time to dick around with no plans, right? I plunked for an introduction to short stories class because I've never really done fiction writing before and short stories seemed more manageable than other things. In retrospect, I maybe should have started even shorter, with flash fiction, but eh.

Now that things are wrapping up, I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about fiction. I mean, I am glad on balance that I took the class. It made me think about fiction in new ways, and I'm paying attention to different things when I read, and that's all great. What isn't so great is the timing. February ended up being a spectacularly shitty month for me (and my family) with illness, expensive car repairs, major surgery and a job loss. Thinking about how to structure a scene, or how dialog works or what motivates characters was never at the front of my mind.

Plus, the class wasn't even close to being workshoppy, but we still read some pieces aloud. And there was discussion, and it all brought back shades of my time in undergrad at the school that did things purely through discussion and didn't really believe in writing papers and where I felt like shit for good chunks of time because I am not a contributing type person in group settings, and why the hell was I there anyway? All of those feelings came flooding back in force, and what was worse, I was going to have to read  something I had written, when I do not write fiction, in front of other people who were like "I write a million stories in my spare time and this is really just a refresher course for me" (I exaggerate, but not by much).

No matter how many times I chanted in my head that this was all just a learning experience, and I was exploring and this was a no-pressure environment and it doesn't matter anyway if I present something sucky because I've literally never done this before! Of course it's going to be sucky! You're inexperienced and trying to learn! It literally, literally doesn't matter! Stop making such a big fucking deal out of this in your head! I've still spent the last eight weeks dreading Tuesday nights. For that alone, the experience of forcing myself to do this, to try and get comfortable in new situations, putting myself and my...work (for lack of a better word, although that word conveys a whole lot more dignity than my page-long scrawls deserve) out there for observation and comment and judgement, was incredibly good for me. I think. And hope. Maybe I started out at the wrong end of the pool? Maybe zero entry with a lot more hand-holding is more my speed? Or I should stay on dry land for the rest of my life? I am a shitty swimmer, both in real life and this metaphor.

(when I finally did end up reading something out loud, I was just supremely grateful that I'd gotten little sleep the night before and was still in the throws of a lingering, nasty cold thing and consequently the whole experience is a bit of a blur)

I am coming away from this experience with a notebook full of handouts and observations and it was An Experience if nothing else. I've already found myself (internally of course) challenging some of the teacher's proclamations. Do you really have to ladle your stories full of shame? Take your characters up to eleven on the experience of human awfulness scale? A lot of what he said is good and true and useful and things, but!

One in-class exercise had us writing about a shameful experience in our own lives. And I was bemused because like, yes, I have definitely felt shame before, but mostly of the "I've done something socially awkward and people are looking at me" variety because that is who I am and my life is pretty boring fucking vanilla. I wrote about this time I tried to flirt [awkwardly] with a guy I was crushing on. I thought he knew who I was because we'd interacted before; he didn't. It was awkward, so awkward, and that memory still burns me to this day. Turns out, though, that doesn't rate very high on the 'what the teacher was looking for' scale, and he was looking more for actual stories of people doing things like letting bullies run riot and using people in relationships and picking up their children by the head. Maybe I would have stories like this if I'd gone to real school rather than being homeschooled? Or just interacted socially with more than 7 people? Or was an adult with kids? I'm totally not saying I've never done something I was ashamed of afterward, just that my most pressing memories of shame, the ones that spring most immediately to my mind, have to do with social fails, and I do get the point of the exercise, but also maybe fiction writing is not really my thing?

Anyway, I have a lot of Mixed Emotions and Feelings following this class, the foremost of which is I would like a month where nothing in my life is happening, and I have made no uncomfortable commitments.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Various Cultural Notes

I did, I did see Pericles at the Guthrie back in January! It was delightful. It's clear why it's not one of Shakespeare's well-known works. In fact, consensus pegs it as half the work of one George Wilkins, a victualler, panderer, dramatist and pamphleteer, with Shakespeare pitching in for the second half. Joseph Haj, the Guthrie's new artistic director/director of this play, actually thinks it's all Shakespeare, which is fine. They did this production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (dream destination, right there) and the Folger Theater in DC before bringing it here, and the Inimitable Kate assured me I was in for a treat (she was right, as she usually is).

So granted that this insanely plot-heavy play doesn't live up to Shakespeare's sublimity all the time, it's still a really great performance. The staging and costuming were glorious, nicely differentiating  the places Pericles' journey takes him without being over the top. The stage was multi-level (I think this is what you call it?) and looked like ragged slabs of marble; I quite liked it. One-man chorus Gower was a delight (who occasionally let us know that he, too, thought something on stage was ridiculously over the top, but, hey, let's just enjoy the ride), and Thaissa's father was a hoot as a hippie-ish Dad who would make All of the Dad Jokes. There were video projections on the back wall of the theater that mostly enhanced whatever was going on (stars, waves, flames, etc.) but once or twice they slid a little bit into Windows Vista screen saver territory.  I also really liked the musical touches they added in, some of it for the play's text, some not.

The other thing I did that week that was maybe a little bit more pretentious was see Antonin Dvorak's Rusalka that the Minnesota Opera put on. Opera isn't as high up in my list of things I love to do as Shakespeare is, but I've gone once or twice and generally enjoyed it, and my friend who is more into these things didn't have to twist my arm too hard.

I feel less qualified to talk about how well things were done or how technically accomplished the performers were. Things looked lovely and I enjoyed myself and that was enough for me. Rusalka is similar to The Little Mermaid (Hans Christian, not Disney) -- a rusalka is a Slavic water spirit, and this particular one falls in love with a prince out hunting, ignores her stern yet loving father's advice to ignore the human and enlists a witch to help her land the prince.

Visually there was a nice differentiation between the water/woodland world of the sprites and the prince's palace (echoes of Soviet-bloc-type concrete housing?). The Prince himself is so...ugh, so first off he's kind of smitten with Rusalka, then loses interest and drifts back to his fiance, the Foreign Princess, but then has conflicted feelings and (spoilers) eventually follows Rusalka back into the forest where she's sobbing her heart out about how much things have gone downhill for her (for reasons having to do with witchcraft, she is now a spirit of death luring humans to their doom in the lake). And the stupid Prince is "jk, lol, I actually love you; kiss me and I will die happy right here" (like literally because of witchcraft reasons, he will die if he kisses her), and she does, and he dies, and she goes on being a Death Sprite for reasons? The ending is incredibly sad, but mostly I came out of the opera wanting to land a good swift kick on the Prince's behind.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Rough Weeks

The past two weeks brought hundreds of dollars of (unfortunately) necessary car repairs, work stress/problems and two relatives in the hospital (one expectedly, the other less so), and now I'm going to put all of that in a box under my bed and talk about a book I love ridiculously much.

Pamela Dean's Tam Lin is such a peculiar book. It takes the Tam Lin story and plonks it down in a Minnesota liberal arts college of the early 1970s (it took me far, far too long to pick up on this, although maybe this was part of Dean's intention?). This is the intersection of two of my very favorite things, Tam Lin and campus novels. There is so much gratuitous quotation and referencing of poetry, and it warms my soul down to my toes.

However! Despite how much I love this book (I read it for the first time over Thanksgiving break, reread it in January and bought my own copy earlier this month), I am able to look it with clear eyes, and it's going to be polarizing. Either you will love it for what it is whole-heartedly or it will drive you up a wall/bore you to tears. I have made peace with the fact that not everyone will love it as I do.

The pacing is so, so weird -- freshman year takes up the first half of the book very unapologetically. The other four years trail after. The climactic confrontation takes up a bare handful of pages. There is little/no tension about the outcome. The characters are mostly college students yet they quote from and reference literature in such a ridiculously ready manner.

This bit in the Toast nails the book perfectly:
You either read this book and want to be an English major in an idyllic little town forever, or you want to run far away from these creeps and watch TV for four days straight. There is no third option.
The college in the book -- Blackstock -- is modeled on Dean's alma mater Carleton College, just about an hour down the road from me in Northfield. Pretty much the day after I finished the book the first time, I just casually pulled up its website to see if the college offered a postgraduate program in English and/or the classics, and sadly it does not. Not that I would base my decision to pursue a master's/Ph.D. program based solely on a school's fictional representation -- this is also the school, after all, that produced the brilliant minds behind Literary Starbucks.

I almost think I fell more in love with the college than with any of the characters, if that's possible, and nothing's made me want to favorably resolve my grad school dithering like this book. I know, I know, I know, it's not smart to use this as a deciding factor, but this reminds how much I actually miss academia and picking apart and examining literature.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Classics, Take Two

Remember that Back to the Classics thing I was sorta-kinda doing last year? Looks like it's going to be a two-year project! I am perfectly fine with that. A swift recap: I read books for 4 of the 12 categories (maybe this will be a 3-year project?), leaving me with:
 20th Century Classic -- Morte D'Urban, J. F. Powers

Classic by a Woman -- The Dud Avocado, Elaine Dundy

A Very Long Classic Novel -- The Betrothed, Alfredo Manzoni

Humorous or Satirical Classic -- Three Men in a Boat (to Say Nothing of the Dog), Jerome K. Jerome

A Forgotten Classic -- Saplings, Noel Streatfeild

A Nonfiction Classic -- A Time of Gifts, Patrick Leigh Fermor

A Classic Children's Book -- To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (I am the most ashamed that I've never actually read this)

A Classic Play -- Tis Pity She's a Whore, John Ford (true story: I couldn't remember what this play was called when I first started writing up this list, so I had to google "romeo and juliet with incest" and it was definitely on the first page of results) OR The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde
I've also low-key resolved not to buy any new books this year because there are too many unread ones on my shelf (I already broke this one, but it was for Pamela Dean's Tam Lin, so I really don't regret it at all), and I own 6 of the above, so that dovetails nicely. I may end up swapping out Three Men with Shirley Jackson's Life Among the Savages, which I do own.

In the spirit of reading through my own shelves, I'm also trying to curtail my library usage, but let's be honest: I usually have so many books out at one time that I even though I haven't made any new holds since December, I still have 7 books sitting in my room right now waiting to be read.