- If you’ve been holding off on reading Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels because there’s, like, four of them, and that’s just kind of a lot of books, and you secretly don’t even really enjoy reading that often anyway, you’re in luck: they’re being adapted for television. “FremantleMedia’s Wildside and Fandango Productions will adapt the four novels as four eight-episode series, one for each of the books—My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child. And just in case you were worried, The Hollywood Reporter reports that Ferrante herself will be involved in the production of the series, and it will be shot in Italy.”
- With his Jack Reacher thrillers, Lee Child writes what are certifiably—at least according to Forbes—the most addictive novels in all of commercial fiction. In this, Christopher Tayler writes, Child owes a debt to Donald Westlake, an earlier thriller writer with a formula that varied in intriguing ways: “Westlake was hailed as a master by John Banville and Stephen King, but he never troubled the bestseller lists, and it’s part of [his series protagonist] Parker’s charm that he’s a bit of a cult property, a creature of the drugstore paperback carousel rather than the airport bookstore … Luc Sante—who published one of the first serious appraisals of the Parker books in 1985—argues persuasively that the master theme of professionalism is as much writerly as criminal. Westlake said that he devised the series because he wanted to write about ‘a workman at work’, and the books offer a double lesson, showing not only, say, each step in the process of breaking though a Sheetrock wall with a claw hammer, but also how to turn the process into mesmerizing fiction.”
- In the fifties and sixties, you couldn’t step into an East German bookstore (and clearly I speak from experience) without encountering the work of Klaus Wittkugel, one of the GDR’s most prominent graphic designers. A new exhibition in New York collects his striking book designs and propaganda posters. If you doubt his significance, just have a look at this unstinting praise from none other than the East German State: “For nearly every important political event in the history of our Workers’ and Peasants’ State, there exists an artistic statement by Wittkugel, who, through his work, has contributed considerably to the new orientation of our applied graphics.”
- The author photo, once the foundation of any decent book-publicity campaign, has seen some changes in the Information Age—some might wonder if there’s really any reason for it at all anymore, when you just Google an author and find pictures by the dozen. But when Matthew Shaer saw Sven Birkerts’s author photo, he felt something different. “Its anomalousness shook me: If the vast majority of author photos fit into one of a handful of standard poses—the Fist-on-Chin (conveying thoughtfulness), the Stare-Out-Window (inner depth), the Icy Stare (strength), the Hearty Laugh (confidence!), etc.—here was an author photo that threw centuries of literary convention in our face. Here was a man who was not even fully dressed in his author photo.”
- In which Alice Gregory ventures to the shadow of Geneva, with a friend and a ten-week-old baby: “Malka is in the other room pumping, ‘like a cow.’ She returns and tells me about a Scandinavian balloon that you insert into your vagina for ten minutes per day for the last month of pregnancy. If you do this, she promises, you won’t need stitches. Malka is full of advice that I don’t need but want anyway. We talk about lots of things up there in the mountains: Buchenwald, deviant sex, how Italians sound like roosters when they try to sing lieders. They use too many vocal effects, apparently. Or, as Malka says, ‘lots of cream all over.’ ”
What hath night to do with sleep? ―John Milton, Paradise Lost
One of the cruelest and most arbitrary displays of grown-up power has always seemed to me our approach to jet lag. Post red-eye, a child is diminished and cranky and disoriented. Almost sick with fatigue, she falls gratefully into deep slumber on the first bed offered, maybe after killing several unpleasant hours until that bed is ready, perhaps fully understanding the privilege of sleep for the first time. And then, a scant hour later, she is shaken briskly awake by some grown-up. Can’t sleep too long! They tell you. Have to fight the jet lag! Must get on local time! And the day—you’re wasting the day!
At least, that’s how it always was in my family. Even then I knew—knew!—that I could have slept five, six hours and still, come evening, have gone to bed whenever they wished me to. How cruel to be deprived of this newly discovered treat, sleep! And I knew that whatever we saw would be through a haze of sleeplessness, and that as a result all my first experiences with new places were exhausted, resentful, and aggressive. My heart twists for the miserable little children I see disembarking from a long-haul night flight, and the drawn, exhausted faces of their parents. Read More
Breastfeeding and boredom.
“You are an animal,” my husband told me. We were in bed. The context was not what you’d expect. A baby was latched onto my right breast while the left leaked an opalescent waterfall of milk.
“I’m a mammal,” I said. This is about as deep as our conversations got in the first month of parenthood. We were upstairs in what we have dubbed the milk cave—the dim bedroom of the nineteenth-century log cabin in southeastern Ohio, where we are currently living. I spend the better part of my days here, watching as my baby’s eager, sucking mouth goes rooting, and then latches on with the force of a heavy lid sealed shut on an overflowing container. There is nothing soft or gentle about my baby’s latch. It is the precise enactment of its definition: a clamping on, a fastening of two bodies. I feel a sudden tug of suction, a rasp of thirst, then sleepiness. I listen for the ker, ker, ker of her swallowing.
Before I gave birth, I knew breastfed babies needed to eat every two hours. But knowing this did not prepare me for the sheer amount of time breastfeeding would demand. Even if someone had told me “twenty minutes per breast per feeding,” it would still have taken sitting down every two hours for forty minutes for me to understand, because just like every other aspect of pregnancy and motherhood—morning sickness, contractions—the imagined experience turned out to be laughably unlike the experience itself.
I was hunkered down in the milk cave in a mess of sheets, sticky with an overabundance of milk, balancing the baby in the football hold and watching her eyes blink slowly open and closed with the rhythm of sucking. I’d finally finish, set her in her Baby Björn, and start digging into e-mails and then, again, she’d shove her fist in her mouth and start smacking her gums with comic franticness. Whole yellow and green summer days slipped by between the milk cave and the breezy porch, gazing at baby on the breast, at the whirring fan and the sheets with their pattern of roses, at the pastures of wavering grasses incandescent in afternoon light. Nights I awoke at two, at four, at six, and in the grainy coffee black, I’d hold the warm parcel of her, feel the eager pressure of those small gums, our animal bodies pressed together, the trickle of milk, the darkness undulating a bit in my delirium. I’d try not to fall asleep, have half-thoughts, then enter a space of no thoughts at all. Read More
Why were the nineties so preoccupied with fatherhood?
Some decades are summed up easily, the accretion of cliché and cultural narrative having reached such a point that we hardly need say anything at all. The sixties: hippies, drugs, revolution, rock-and-roll. The eighties: Young Republicans, greed is good, massive perms, Ronald Reagan. This is reductive, obviously, but it’s also helpful cultural shorthand. The nineties, like the seventies, have a less unified narrative: there’s gangster rap, Monica Lewinsky, Columbine, Kurt Cobain, O.J., MTV, white slackers on skateboards, and the LA riots, but they’re all disparate, disconnected. There was no counterculture powerful enough to write the narrative from below, no one mass-cultural or political trend hegemonic enough to make itself the truth. Some enjoy calling this diffusion postmodernism, though most everyone else agrees those people are assholes.
But there was, I contend, a current that ran through the culture of the nineties, a theme that has not to my knowledge been recognized as such. That theme is the heroic dad. Read More
I first knew of Jennifer Gilmore as the author of two ambitious, warm, hilarious novels (Golden Country, 2006, and Something Red, 2010) that, placed side by side, provide an admirably thorough and thoroughly amusing take on the some of the most interesting ideas, inventions, characters, and past-times of the twentieth century—television, immigration, two-in-one cleaning products, radical politics, Joseph McCarthy, cults, and Ian MacKaye.
I first met Jennifer Gilmore on an early spring day nearly two years ago when we both went to meet the same writer friend for a late afternoon drink at the same Brooklyn bar where another writer friend bartends every Tuesday. We soon discovered that we are around the same age, live one Brooklyn neighborhood apart, and have many more than two friends in common. That spring, Jennifer was working on her third novel, told from the perspective of a woman trying, and mostly failing, to adopt a child through the byzantine process of domestic open adoption. I was about to go back to my twentieth high school reunion, during which I planned to visit the school for pregnant teenagers run by the Salvation Army where I spent the spring of 1989 believing I would release my own daughter to another couple through domestic open adoption. Jennifer and her husband, like the fictional couple in her novel, The Mothers, released last Tuesday, had already imagined themselves into the lives of many mothers and their children, only to find that the mother had chosen another couple, or decided to parent her own child, or, in the most outrageous cases, was not even pregnant at all. In 1989, I became that kind of mother when, two days after my daughter’s birth, I told the couple I had chosen to be her parents that I planned to do it myself instead.
Jennifer had read some of the stories I had written on my own failed adoption when they had appeared in Salon (where I was once an editor, and to which both of us have contributed essays). Although we had been on opposite sides of the story, our mutual fascination with what we sometimes referred to as “The Topic” was one of the reasons we became friends. We had both read and thought and obsessed over the tangle of race, class, and politics throughout the institution’s history. We both knew about orphan trains and maternity homes and the Hague Adoption Convention. We also both knew well how sometimes the end of the story could feel like just plain dumb grief all around.
Last month, Jennifer and her husband brought home their son. Last week, Jennifer and I met for a late afternoon drink on a early spring day at Lavender Lake, the Brooklyn bar with the name that references the exotically colored Gowanus canal that connects our two neighborhoods, to discuss her new novel, first person vs. omniscient narrators, open adoption and all the intellectual, political, and emotional issues it raises that should be fascinating to anyone at all.
Your first two novels were sprawling, multi-generational social sagas: Your first novel, Golden Country, took place in your grandparents’ era and covered, among other things, the Jewish-American immigrant experience, World War II, the World’s Fair, and fortunes built on mob life, cleaning products, and the invention of television. Your second novel, Something Red, which takes place at the end of the seventies inches closer to your own childhood. That novel dealt with radical politics, the Cold War, and the D.C. straight-edge punk rock scene.
The Mothers is totally different: it is your first novel narrated in the first-person, and your narrator, Jesse, along with her spouse, is trying to adopt a child through domestic open adoption, as you have also done. You also wrote the novel while you were going through the process of trying to adopt. After so many years of writing your fictional characters from a certain distance, what like to write a character whose experiences veer so closely to your own?
If I was going to come closer to myself in this particular trilogy of history, I wouldn’t have chosen this particular book. Given the situation, I just wanted to make my life interesting to myself, as opposed to wanting to blow my head off.
It’s unsettling how some stories come around again. When I was eight, my mother and I were in our garage in Lubbock, Texas, when she suddenly yelled, “GO!” and shoved me through the door. I ran to my parents’ bedroom. Suddenly, my mother was there, shaking, muttering “No. Oh, no.” She called someone, asked for an ambulance, said there had been an accident. She told me to stay inside, to not look out the windows. Not long after, I heard sirens. And the sirens, it seemed, kept coming. It’s been more than thirty years since that moment, and the pieces of it in my memory are scattered, like shards of glass.
I usually wake by ten o’clock on Sunday mornings, but this Sunday was different. From my bed, I could see through the hallway to the bathroom, where Indie, my nine-year-old daughter, was leaning over the black rug in the bathroom. She was sitting on her feet, her hands on her knees, as if she’d been running all night in her sleep and had woken in recovery mode. It was the end of October, and this was not the first time I had found her here, vomiting into the toilet. Her bobbed hair sticking up in the back, tousled, blonde. I asked if she needed me, hoped that she didn’t, because I was exhausted, my head tight, pounding, a hint I must have had too many glasses of chardonnay the night before.
We had only lived in the house since August, so Indie didn’t yet have a pediatrician. The week before, the pharmacist at the Price Chopper suggested Pedialyte, maybe Ensure if she didn’t start eating more. Fiber, he suggested. She’d be fine. Read More