Archive for January, 2010

The Shropshire “genius”

Friday, January 29th, 2010

Photo by Dorothy Hickling

Mary Webb suffered the usual writerly self-deprecation:  she considered herself “wholly un-gifted” and her literary missteps left her “whelmed in remorse & terror.”

That, despite an admirable degree of success, publishing six books and scores of poems, and earning respectable fees from the Spectator and the Atlantic Monthly.  (She donated much of her income to London’s poor, and often subsisted on bread and tea; she burned her drafts for warmth.)

Webb had her fans:  “She is a genius, and I shouldn’t mind wagering that she is going to be the most distinguished writer of our generation,” wrote Rebecca West in the Times Literary Supplement.

Yet she has been forgotten since her death in 1927, at age 46. Forgotten, that is, until the pioneering efforts of Mary Crawford of San Mateo.  Crawford has organized a show, “Mary Webb: Neglected Genius,” that runs through March 13 at Manhattan’s Grolier Club (“America’s oldest and largest society for Bibliophiles”) — with an lavish catalogue to go with it. In May, the show is coming to Stanford, which has scanned some of the Webb memorabilia.

Webb’s story is told in the New York Times here.

I know, I know.  The May exhibition is a long way away.  Meanwhile, to slake your curiosity, you might check out Crawford’s Mary Webb website, or the Mary Webb website based in her native Shropshire, on the Welsh border, here, or the Facebook page:  “Has No One Ever Heard of Mary Webb?


Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

198Shelley Fisher Fishkin will read from her newest Mark Twain’s Book of Animals at 7 p.m. tonight, at the Peninsula Humane Society Auditorium, 12 Airport Boulevard, in San Mateo, and sign books afterwards.  The Stanford Bookstore will be on hand to sell copies of the book at a 20 percent discount, and Shelley will donate $5 to the Peninsula Humane Society/Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for every book sold tonight.  More on the event here.

I know, I know:  We’ve written about Shelley before, but this event gives us an excuse to quote controversial Princeton ethicist Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation and The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty:
“For those unaware — as I was until I read this book — that Mark Twain was one of America’s early animal advocates, Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s collection of his writings on animals will come as a revelation. Many of these pieces are as fresh and lively as when they were first written, and it’s wonderful to have them gathered in one place.”
UPDATE:  And a nice plug for the event in the San Francisco Chronicle here.

“Hapless target of satire”? We think not.

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

castleFun interview with Terry Castle, author of HarperCollin’s just-released The Professor and Other Writings, in the New York Times here.

James Wolcott of Vanity Fair, calls Terry Castle a “Jedi knight of literary exploration and lesbian scholarship,” and The castle2Professor “a greatest-hits package of show-stopping monologues and offhand-genius riffs.”  Terry, who describes herself in the New York Times as an erstwhile “hapless target of satire” during the time she was “an unpopular child growing up in San Diego and London,” is best known as the author of Literature of Lesbianism.

Apparently, interviewer Deborah Solomon was surprised that a lit prof would write “sparkling and witty prose.” Most writers are herded onto campuses nowadays, aren’t they? Terry’s chum Susan Sontag was a notable exception — and disses academia in “Desperately Seeking Susan,” a key essay in the book (the London Review of Books has the 2005 essay here).

Solomon’s defeated expectation notwithstanding, it’s a rather lively interview.  Sample exchange:

Solomon: Camille Paglia has written that gay men are much livelier company than lesbians, whom she associates with “resentment or ideology.” Do you agree that lesbians suffer from a paucity of wit?
Castle: Well, those who drank the Kool-Aid in the ’70s in the heyday of lesbian separatism — a lot of them have ended up in the academic world as historians or sociologists. And so there is a kind of earnest and stylistically impaired lesbian who is still in existence, like a stegosaurus.

More on Terry’s latest book later…

דליה רביקוביץ’‎

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010


Ravikovitch in the 1950s

When Dahlia Ravikovitch‘s first book of poetry, The Love of an Orange, hit Israeli bookstores in 1959, its potpourri of archaic diction and proto-feminist sensibilities created a literary sensation.  So did its title poem — a riff on the Prokofiev opera, but with a fierce, deft twist.

Much of her oeuvre was never published in English before now.  That literary oversight has changed with Chana Kronfeld’s and Chana Bloch‘s recently published Norton translation, Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch.  The two translators read poems in Hebrew and English at the Stanford Humanities Center on Jan. 14.

“No other poet except [Yehuda] Amichai was so universally embraced by Israelis,” said Bloch, noting that Ravikovitch had been translated into 21 languages.

Those languages included a few unexpected ones, for example, Arabic and Hungarian, said Kronfeld.  Her poetry hasHovering at a Low Altitude also been adapted to music.  For a U.S. comparison, “imagine John Ashbery on the Hit Parade,” said Kronfeld.  Her popularity is hard to comprehend in the U.S. — as Dana Gioia put it, a country where editors “run poems and poetry reviews the way a prosperous Montana rancher might keep a few buffalo  around—not to eat the endangered creatures but to display them for tradition’s sake.”

chana2Ravikovitch was “enormously influential,” said Kronfeld, yet she was “barely able to make a living.”

“She appeared to be fragile but was nothing if not bold,” said Bloch.

She was also a relentless peacenik; a running theme through her poetry is “the concern with power and powerlessness,” said Kronfeld.  Ravikovitch “frequently condemned messianic settlers” in Israel.

She battled clinical depression — one reason why her death, in 2005, was initially thought by many to be suicide.  An autopsy revealed heart irregularities.

The title of the new volume is taken from one of Ravikovitch’s poems: “Hovering” is Israeli army language to describe helicopter patrols — “to hover” (le-rachef) is also slang for “to stay cool, dissociated from the political situation.”  From the title poem:

I am not here.
I’ve been in the mountains many days now.
The light will not scorch me. The frost cannot touch me.
Nothing can amaze me now.
I’ve seen worse things in my life.

I tuck my dress tight around my legs and hover
very close to the ground.
What ever was she thinking, that girl?
Wild to look at, unwashed.
For a moment she crouches down.
Her cheeks soft silk,
frostbite on the back of her hand.
She seems distracted, but no,
in fact she’s alert.
She still has a few hours left.
But that’s hardly the object of my meditations.
My thoughts, soft as down, cushion me comfortably.

I’ve found a very simple method,
not so much as a foot-breadth on land
and not flying, either—
hovering at a low altitude.

But as day tends toward noon,
many hours
after sunrise,
that man makes his way up the mountain.
He looks innocent enough.
The girl is right there, near him,
not another soul around.
And if she runs for cover, or cries out—
there’s no place to hide in the mountains.

I am not here.
I’m above those savage mountain ranges
in the farthest reaches of the East.
No need to elaborate.
With a single hurling thrust one can hover
and whirl about with the speed of the wind.
Can make a getaway and persuade myself:
I haven’t seen a thing.
And the little one, her eyes start from their sockets,
her palate is dry as a potsherd,
when a hard hand grasps her hair, gripping her
without a shred of pity.

The riddles of Tillie Olsen

Sunday, January 17th, 2010

Tillie Olsen in 2001

I interviewed Tillie Olsen circa 1983 when Marilyn Yalom‘s Women Writers of the West Coast was first published.  It was a brief but bracing experience.  I  unwittingly mentioned a third writer who triggered a bitter association.  The telephone nearly burned my hand.

Apparently, Olsen could be somewhat prickly — as confirmed in this account published in the Sacramento Bee this week.  Panthea Reid’s almost-500-page biography, Tillie Olsen: One Woman, Many Riddles, is “the first book to unravel the riddle of a life devoted to and tormented by writing,” according to the Kansas City Star.

The reviewer, Carl Rollyson, has a somewhat mixed reputation as the author of an unauthorized biography of Susan Sontag.  But anyone who has worked in the umbra or penumbra of biography will appreciate this account:

Panthea Reid was flattered when Olsen responded affectionately to one of Reid’s appreciative letters. But the correspondence ended when Reid announced she wanted to write Olsen’s biography.

A year passed and after making contact with Olsen’s family, Reid began to get her subject’s cooperation. All to the good, until Olsen balked at granting the biographer’s request for permission to quote from Olsen’s Stanford University archive.

What was the problem? Like Huckleberry Finn, Tillie Olsen did not mind telling quite a few “stretchers.” In fact, Olsen had not witnessed the aftermath of a black man’s terrible beating; she had not been held back in school because she was deemed retarded. Her dramatic versions of her childhood were false or wildly exaggerated, as Olsen’s brother and others were quick to tell Reid.

It brings to mind Lillian Hellman‘s tall tales — which caused Mary McCarthy to remark  “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.'” The fighting words on The Dick Cavett Show in 1979 triggered a $2.25 lawsuit, which ended only with Hellman’s death.

Reid’s story has a happy ending, however — at least for the “sly biographer,” who composed a statement lauding Olsen for making her archive at Stanford University available to scholars – “and then slipped in a phrase about giving permission to quote. ‘What a nice letter,’ Olsen said, as she signed her approval.”

Two new books raise moral questions

Saturday, January 16th, 2010

Von Braun and J.F.K.

Before a new round of Sunday reviews  comes out tomorrow, a few notable critiques from last week, both with a moral edge:

In the New York Times, David Holloway reviews Wayne Biddle’s Dark Side of the Moon: Wernher von Braun, the Third Reich, and the Space Race, a “deeply skeptical account” of the rocket scientist’s early career, here.

“Biddle argues that German rocketry was a form of technological Romanticism with strong cultural biddleconnections to right-wing politics.  The United States, like the Soviet Union, built on what Germany had done. Did it inherit more than the technology?”

Biddle has a overarching point that transcends its subject: “scientists and engineers, by claiming to be ‘apolitical,’ often escape being held to account for what they help to produce.  In other words, von Braun is an egregious example of a more general phenomenon.” It rather brings to mind the Book Haven’s recent post on Tintin and its creator, the Belgian artist Hergé.

Jefferson: "confidence in authority"

Jefferson: “confidence in authority”

Meanwhile, over at the Washington Post, Jack Rakove reviews John Yoo’s  “deeply unsettling account” of the role of the presidency in our constitutional scheme, Crisis and Command: A History of Executive Power from George Washington to George W. Bush, here.
“Given Yoo’s strong conservatism, it would be easy for liberals to dismiss Crisis and Command as one more venture in a hackneyed debate. That would be a big mistake.” Rakove calls the book “always provocative and thoughtful,” noting “though I disagree in key respects with his positions, his arguments merit attention and respect.”

Rakove concludes, “The presidents we admire possessed a pronounced confidence in their authority. … However much we celebrate the heroic presidents, Americans, as a people, have a stake in seeing the whole government achieve its potential.”

Crème de la crème

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

fishkinTo be one of 700 honored by a prize may not seem like that big of a deal — until you realize that you had about 25,000 competitors.

Choice, which reviews book for the American Library Association, publishes a list of outstanding academic titles reviewed during the previous calendar year in its January issue.  It reviews about 7,000 works each year out of 25,000 submitted.  The list of “Outstanding Academic Titles” is selected from the reviewed books.

Two authors already appearing in the electronic world of the Book Haven have been awarded:  Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin (who appeared here and here) was awarded for Feminist Engagements: Forays into American Literature and Culture (Palgrave Macmillan) and Abbas Milani (he’s mentioned here, and there’s a ABC report about his inclusion on Iran’s “enemies” list here), for his acclaimed Eminent Persians: The Men and Women Who Made Modern Iran, 1941-1979 (Syracuse).milani2

Both are on the Stanford faculty, but so are a few other winners:   physicist Leonard Susskind, with his intriguingly titled The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics (Little, Brown); pediatrician Donald A. Barr, author of Health Disparities in the United States: Social Class, Race, Ethnicity, and Health (Johns Hopkins) and Richard G. Klein, the biologist/anthropologist author of The Human Career: Human Biological and Cultural Origins (Chicago).

Another winner is Stanford University Press, whose honored books included: Joel Andreas’s , Rise of the Red Engineers: The Cultural Revolution and the Origins of China’s New Class; Andrew Elfenbein’s Romanticism and the Rise of English; Hiromi Mizuno’s Science for the Empire: Scientific Nationalism in Modern Japan; Diane Perpich’s The Ethics of Emmanuel Levinas; Sultan Tepe’s Beyond Sacred and Secular: Politics of Religion in Israel and Turkey, and Muthiah Alagappa’s The Long Shadow: Nuclear Weapons and Security in 21st Century Asia.

A poet? “Yes, I am.”

Friday, January 8th, 2010

Lewis (Photo by L.A. Cicero)

My Q&A with Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis appeared online today here (along with a splendid poem from her collection, Chaotic Angels).  If you have never heard the Welsh language spoken, you are in for a treat: Gwyneth reads from her Welsh poem, “The Language Murderer,” in a video clip here.

My research on Gwyneth prior to the interview revealed an unexpected correspondence:  We had both studied with the late Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky.  Brodsky’s teaching style could be rough weather, but it was always unforgettable and, for many of us, foundational.  Among the many Brodsky students who pepper the literary landscape are the poets Linda Gregerson (I met her during Stanford’s “Milton at 400” celebration) and Gjertrud Schnackenberg, poet and translator Peter Filkins, and the critic James Marcus.

In Joseph Brodsky: Conversations, I recounted James Marcus’s description of a Brodsky class:

Marcus, while attending Columbia University, heard rumors of a student in the previous term whose work Brodsky joseph_brodskyhad ridiculed so mercilessly that she burst into tears in class.  … “Throughout the semester he would bum cigarettes from the few addicts in the class, tearing the filters off with his teeth before applying a match.” Brodsky explained his worldview to his students: “Poetry, in his estimation, was the glue of civilization, and language the repository of time itself.” Later in the semester, after assigning a short paper for class, he warned them, “Assume that this may be the last thing you write. … Don’t forget, you could get hit by a car after you hand it in.  Keep that thought in mind.” While it may have been “grandiose nuttiness” from anyone else, Marcus concludes that Brodsky was merely extending his own “high seriousness about writing to his students” — few of whom deserved it.

Gwyneth said she still carries the big fat Mont Blanc pens that Brodsky favored, in memoriam.

I recalled that Brodsky said, at the time that he received the Nobel, that “he guessed” he could finally call himself a poet.  Reviewing Ludmila Shtern’s Brodsky: A Personal Memoir for the Kenyon Review, I wrote:  “Facile journalistic questions, so often spotlighting the chaotic_angels‘vulgarity of the human heart,’ occasionally evoked his out-of-the-box thinking, when one could get beyond the breezy or brush-off answers. Repeatedly asked about when he realized he had a call to write poetry, Shtern recalls him answering, ‘I still don’t know if it’s my calling,’ or ‘since last Saturday.'”

Yet today, I said to Gwyneth, every high school student who has scrawled a rock lyric feels free to assume the title.

So where did Lewis stand on this question?  She respectfully disagreed with Brodsky:

“But I think also in a way you can be too shy in calling yourself a poet.  It took me years to bring myself to the point where I could say that.  Another poet said to me at one point, ‘Look, you have to decide,  “Are you or are you not?”  That moment where you have to say [she inhaled  deeply],  ‘Yes, I am,’ is an important rite of passage.  But it’s certainly not something to be used in a facile way.”

The choice is not without perils:

I remember one time I was working in New York, for a man – something to do with oil.  Anyway, he gave me a lift home and he asked me, “What do you do?” and I said, “I’m a poet.”

“Oh, wake up, honey!” he said.  I’ve often thought that perhaps he was the one who had to wake up.

All the books, all the time

Monday, January 4th, 2010

google1We wrote earlier about the Library of Alexandria’s attempt to have all the information, available to everybody, all the time, and the possibility that no book will ever be out of print.

Of course, Google’s attempt to digitize every book ever printed already fits the bill.

As Daniel Clancy, director of Google Books, put it:  “Google said our mission is to organize all the world’s information.”  Every time you do a Google search, he says, you are searching 12 million books.  And it’s free … so far.

In case you missed it, the PBS Newhour did an eight-minute spot on the controversy Dec. 30.  Transcript and broadcast available here.

According to Stanford University Librarian Michael Keller:  “What happens when you digitize these books and make them accessible on the Net is that they get a lot more use. People can find the stuff, 10 times more use than formerly was recorded.”google2

The problem is, Google is a corporation, not a library. According to Gary Reback, attorney for the Open Book Alliance, “What Google is proposing here is not like any library you have ever been to. It’s not a public library. It’s a private library. And it’s being run for profit, big profits. Google is going to charge university scholars, ordinary people, even schoolchildren, to get access to books that Google copied without the permission of the publisher or the author.”

Google says it ain’t so, but Prof. Pam Samuelson of UC-Berkeley has reservations: “There really are not checks and balances in the agreement about pricing strategies. And it seems like, the more books that Google scans, the higher the prices can be. The entire thing transformed itself into a commercial enterprise. It’s basically turned this project into a bookstore, rather than a library.”

At Stanford, top librarians grappled with how to adapt to online books and whether to cooperate with digitizations of their collections. Bookstores like Berkeley’s Pegasus are adapting in its own way:  it’s now selling digital books on its website.

PBS correspondent Spencer Michels summarizes the controversy here.  The comments are pretty interesting, too.