August 27, 2013 | by Casey N. Cep
My father’s father was a carpenter. I never met my grandfather, but I know from photographs and stories that in addition to farming, keeping dairy cows, and working on a cannery line, he earned money by carpentry. I also know from the sawhorses that my father inherited from his father.
The wooden trestles stood ever-vigilant in our garage, ready to serve whenever their nail-bitten, blade-gauged bodies were needed. The sawhorses were two of a few inherited things that reminded me of the grandfather I never met: a pear tree that still stands but no longer grows heavy with fruit in early autumn; a concrete trough he made that my sister, used for her horse’s drinking water; a pitchfork on which the handle had been replaced many times, and that we used for moving straw, hay, manure, or leaves, depending on the season.
Our inheritance felt large, but it was the sawhorses that I most admired, especially when my father put them to use constructing bookshelves for my bedroom. My father was no stranger to construction; he built the log cabin in which I was raised. He inherited not only tools but also skills from his father, so he was able to cut, stain, and install the wide bookshelves on my bedroom walls in no time. The shelves were required to house my growing library, acquired book by book in a thrilling sequence of gifts, purchases, and trades.
The day those bookshelves were installed was both an end and a beginning. It was the beginning of my treating books like objects and the end of my venerating them as relics. The order of the library, the logic of the archive, the structure of the bookstore all faded that day; suddenly, my books were mine to play with and I could do with them as I pleased. I could arrange them by height or by color. I could divide them with whatever objects I wanted: the painted deer skull I had been given as a dream catcher, the glow-in-the-dark vampire mask I had bought on a family vacation, the ornate carousel music boxes I had collected. Read More »
August 8, 2013 | by Pamela Erens
George Eliot’s Middlemarch has been my favorite novel ever since one summer nearly thirty years ago, when I read it on the recommendation of a Victorian literature–obsessed college friend. I’ve read it twice since then, which might not seem like a lot for a favorite book, but it is nine hundred pages long, and its richness holds me for many years at a time.
I love Middlemarch, published in 1872, for many reasons. I love Eliot’s gently intrusive narrator, her aphoristic habit of mind, her asides on medical research and philanthropy and manners. She can be extremely funny at times, a fact often overlooked by impatient readers. But Eliot’s wonderful narrator appears in her other great books as well—Daniel Deronda and Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner—so why is Middlemarch my best beloved?
Perhaps it has to do with the fact that this particular novel, more even than Eliot’s others, is all about people trying to be good—out of religious belief or a desire to improve the lot of the common man or the love of a woman or in expiation of past badness. The attempt is portrayed as difficult, almost killing at times, and many of the characters fail at it spectacularly. The novel is set against the backdrop of political do-gooding: the great British reforms of the late 1820s and early 1830s, which greatly expanded the number of Englishmen (not women, of course) who could vote. It was a time when the concept of the good itself was beginning to have a more democratic and less aristocratic connotation.
At the center of the many story lines in Middlemarch (marriages, deaths, legacies, falls from grace) is Dorothea Brooke, a nineteen-year-old orphan with a decent inheritance who has dreams of doing some great work in the world. At first she wants to improve the cottages of the tenant farmers who work on her uncle’s estate. Her plans are not met with much enthusiasm; those around her are the sort who think things are fine just the way they are. Courted by a local landowner who is considered a very good catch, she instead decides to marry a much older scholar whom she imagines to be some sort of genius. She will be his helpmeet; she’ll learn Greek and Latin so that she can help him guide his magnum opus into the world. Unfortunately her new husband, Casaubon, turns out to be a dry and humorless pedant who over time crushes Dorothea’s every impulse toward joy and intimacy. She, knowing she is bound to him legally, and feeling bound to him morally, fights against her resentment and loneliness, and although she no longer believes in his talent or his project, gives over her days to providing the lowly secretarial aid he demands. Read More »
July 30, 2013 | by Lisa Darms
A few years ago, I started a collection at NYU’s Fales Library & Special Collections to document the feminist Riot Grrrl movement in its formative and most active years, from 1989 to 1997. Originally a reaction against the failures of punk to extend its DIY model of empowerment to women, Riot Grrrl encouraged young women to form their own bands, self-publish personal stories and revolutionary agendas in zines, and carve out safe spaces in a violent, misogynist culture. Riot Grrrl was not a centralized movement, and many of the donors to the collection never called themselves “riot grrrls.” I never did, even though I went to the shows, read the zines, and identified as a punk and a feminist. Looking back, I see Riot Grrrl as descriptive of a moment as much as a movement: one that many young people now seem to want to study, learn from, and revivify. This summer, the Feminist Press published The Riot Grrrl Collection, my book of almost 350 pages of selections from the collection. Below are a few of my favorites.
This flyer, a pre–Riot Grrrl “manifesto” that was later repurposed for the minizine Riot Grrrl, is the first image in the book. Kathleen told me she made it in 1989, when she was volunteering at Safeplace, Olympia’s long-lived domestic-violence shelter and advocacy organization. Designed so that it could be folded up into a small rectangle with the word trust on top, this flyer was both a secret invitation and a public announcement, much like Riot Grrrl itself. Read More »
June 14, 2013 | by Alexander Nazaryan
It is best to dispense at once with the salacious stuff of Charlie Newman’s life: he was a drunk, a bastard, and a boor. His marriages did not last. His books did not bring fame. When not poisoning his liver or relations with both family and fellow writers, he taught college, smoked a pipe, and trained dogs.
Only the very last of these facts is relevant when reading In Partial Disgrace, a fantastically odd posthumous novel for those who like their beauty strange, their plots unruly, their ideas ambitious. It has been patched together by his nephew Ben Ryder Howe—a former editor at The Paris Review–and released this spring by Dalkey Archive Press. The book is set in a fictional European land called Cannonia, its history based on that of Hungary but its name quite clearly derived from the Latin for dog, canis. The main character, Felix Aufidius Pzalmanazar, is a dog breeder, and there are roughly 0.7 references to the canine species on each page of this gorgeous mess of a novel, which is what Pale Fire (a novel Newman adored) might have read like if given a heavy-handed edit by Cesar “The Dog Whisperer” Millan. Read More »
June 11, 2013 | by Rowena Kennedy-Epstein
In the Library of Congress archive of the American poet Muriel Rukeyser, there is a vast network of one-sided correspondence, incomplete drafts, unpublished texts, notes, proofs, diaries, and datebooks. It is a space of the unfinished, of process, and of radical possibility. Its silences represent the often violent effects of cold-war intellectual suppression, the sexism of editors, and the deaths of lovers. Over the course of six years I came and went, making the trip from New York to D.C., piecing together a literary history about a writer whose life and work are notoriously difficult to map.
The archival breaks, aesthetic pronouncements, and biographical lacunae that characterize Rukeyser’s archive do not feel particularly surprising for a writer whose career and work appear always disrupted and open-ended—visible and invisible at the same time. Rukeyser’s poems, biographies, and essays have persistently challenged the rigid artistic, political, and intellectual binaries that have shaped the twentieth century, and because of this she has experienced a continual burial and recovery. She has been alternately denigrated and admired for being an avant-garde and radical poet, a feminist, a theorist, an activist; for being sexually liberated and a single mother. She has been viewed from both sides of the critical establishment as being either too aesthetically experimental or not aesthetically rigorous enough, as too radical or insufficiently Marxist. These dichotomous readings of Rukeyser highlight the ways in which her work defied and remade the political and artistic programs of her historical moment. “For our time depends not on single points of knowledge,” she wrote in The Life of Poetry, “but on clusters and combinations.”
The Life of Poetry begins on a boat evacuating Barcelona during the first days of the Spanish Civil War. In it, she describes an experience of profound transformation, writing of Spain as the place where “I began to say what I believed.” I followed that thought into her archive and back out again. Almost no one had written on the subject; her writings on Spain were like unmarked graves scattered through her work, identifiable only by a phrase or image repeated and refigured in other works, some of them long out of print, others lost and buried in the archive. But the silences of each gave access to the other: a line in a poem made a map into the archive; the material recovered in the archive made visible not only that which was hidden in her already published work, but elucidated new literary and political histories. Rukeyser wrote about Spain for more than forty years, in every genre. The texts overlap and echo each other; they proliferate across decades and are intertwined with other histories. Always they carry a sense of urgency, and always they return to just five days in 1936. Read More »
May 8, 2013 | by Sadie Stein