Alice Munro's Generous Intimacy

Oct 2013 UDPATE: Alice Munro just won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature and Eleanor Wachtel has re-podcasted her delightful 2004 interview with Munro (described below, under "Fascinating"). Listen online or download it now for safekeeping from the iTunes Writers and Company podcast.

Alice Munro is greedy about how much she can fit into a short story. She is not one of those writers who over-favor a single (whiny) protagonist: her perspective is simultaneously singular and generous, which gives an old-world depth to her stories, but she is the opposite of fusty--her frank and intimate narration is entirely modern and shockingly honest. (According to an interview with Eleanor Wachtel, it was a Munro short story that broke the f-word barrier for fiction in the Shawn-era New Yorker, though Jesse Sheidlower's The F-Word credits a Bobbie Ann Mason story.) As has been said many times before, Munro's stories have the scope of novels and the verisimilitude of Chekhov.  She is profligate with time, place, and event. She does not hoard revelations or dole them out in precious morsels. Her best plots deliver more than one punch: they enact a pacey drive toward the main character's impulse or insight, and then follow up with consequences that knock them in another direction.

Fascinating Munro Audio
The technique and structure of Munro's fiction cannot be dissected--it is too holistically constructed, each element radiating from a shared center of artistry--which makes it all the more fascinating to hear Munro speak about her work. The best audio interview I've ever heard with Munro is the Wachtel one mentioned above, recorded at Munro's favorite Goderich lunch spot in October 2004, and rebroadcasted and podcasted by CBC's Writers & Co. on Canada Day (July 1st) 2009, just over a month after Munro added the 2009 Man Booker International Prize to her mountain of awards. The interview lasts about an hour. It encompasses the arc of Munro's life and career, her opinions on adultery and hardship in fiction, her childhood in rural Ontario and how a scholarship launched her into the wider world, her frustration with the heroines of Tolstoy and her intimation of the sex in Austen, the unconscious theme of the stories in Runaway, the differing nature of her relationships with her mother and father, and her exploratory composition method. The audio is also available for online listening from the Writer's & Company webpage.

Subscribe to Snag Future Downloads
I also recommend subscribing to Wachtel's CBC Writers & Company podcast feed on iTunes, in hopes that they'll repost this great interview the next time Munro wins an award, and then you can download it for keeps and put it on your iPod for portable listening. Wachtel is one of the best author interviewers around, so it's worth tapping into the Writers & Co. podcast just to see who's up next (she also interviews filmmakers and journalists). Interviews are available for download for four weeks after they're podcasted.

Elizabeth Strout Lauds Alice Munro
Wachtel assembled a panel of Munro devotees (online link to schedule archive--scroll down to fourth item) at the Vancouver International Writers & Readers Festival in October 2009. Joseph Boyden, Amit Chaudhuri, Joan London, Alistair McLeod, and Elizabeth Strout talk about Munro's writing and her effect on their work. Writers & Co. podcasted the panel's tribute to Munro on 11/23/09 (should be available for downloading until Dec. 09).  Strout's 7-minute reading and appreciation begins at Minute 6:30, but the whole 53-minute panel discussion is interesting. If you download it before it expires from iTunes, you can take it for a walk.

Alice Munro and Diana Athill Onstage
The 30th International Festival of Authors, which took place in Toronto in October 2009, featured a first-ever onstage meeting of Alice Munro and legendary editor Diana Athill, hosted by Bill Richardson. The Globe and Mail videotaped the 44-minute chat (unfortunately the Q&A was not captured on the recording). Richardson wisely lets les grandes dames littéraires hold the floor, but I didn't feel that Munro came through as fully as she does in the October 2004 Wachtel audio interview.  You can watch the whole Munro-Athill chat online at the Globe and Mail's "In Other Words" site.

Munro's Long Career in Short
The publication of Munro's latest collection, Too Much Happiness, led to Sam Tanenhaus's interview with Munro for the NYTimes.com Book Review 11/27/09 podcast*. The 7-minute phone conversation begins around 30 seconds in, and includes the author politely repulsing the "ordinary" and "drab" labels often applied to her characters. "None of them seem ordinary to me," Munro says (Minute 2:30). She calls the short form "expansive," talks about her early influences (Minute 5:30: Chekhov, Welty, McCullers, O'Connor, Maxwell), and she's good-natured about the weary question of why there are no Munro novels, revealing that she once cut the beginning of an attempted novel into four stories. There are some intriguing but spoilerish moments when Tanenhaus and Munro talk specifically about two of the new stories in Too Much Happiness, so if you like to approach your Munro with no foreknowledge, listen to the podcast after you read. The podcast is available for download as of this posting on iTunes, and for online listening at the NYTimes.com podcast archive (November 27, 2009: direct mp3 link here).

*Details corrected 12/9/09, thanks to IFOA.


Doris Lessing and the Fem Diss

Publishers Weekly's fem-anemic 100 Best Books of 2009 (no books by women in top ten, only 29 total) goosed the immortal topic of the relative gravitas of women's fiction and its status in the publishing world. I'm no fan of po-co inclusivity, but at a minimum it seems eco-inco for an industry pub to diss the money base of publishing, a base identified in a recent consumer research report that PW helped produce--you know, the loyal, book-buying women who reliably open their pretty little purses to purchase their gendermates' oeuvres in bestselling quantities, as well as books written by guys. Respect, anyone?

Of Prizes and Men
The PW fem-diss has reinvigorated a discussion of the criteria by which books are judged and the utility of "best" lists and prizes. For direct responses, read these wise and punchy essays by Laura Miller at Salon and Lizzie Skurnick at Politics Daily. You can also listen to Random House sales reps Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness provide illuminating modern and historical context on their 11/11/09 Books on the Nightstand podcast (about 22 very interesting minutes, also downloadable from iTunes).

Twitter Rallies for #Fembook
You can also eavesdrop on the ongoing discussion on Twitter by clicking on this #fembook search hashtag, or participate by acquiring your own Twitter @handle if you don't already have one. (Warning Message: Twitter is currently free, often fascinating, and a huge potential time-pecker.) Charlotte Abbott (@charabbott), host of Follow the Reader, and guest Bethanne Patrick (@thebookmaven) of The Book Studio, will conduct a live, open-invitation #fembook #followreader chat on Twitter on 11/13/09 from 4-5 pm EST (scroll down this page for instructions).

When I first heard about the PW list, I wondered aloud (on Twitter, of course), "What would Doris Lessing say?" Lessing has come out in the past against an oversimplified feminist call-to-arms, but when she hears her own work patronized she can execute a near-castrating boomerang diss. There's a sterling tranche of online audio from a Q & A she did at the Cheltenham (UK) Literary Festival in 2006 (iTunes link to Part Two--may not work) that captures Lessing's skill at demolishing the disser. I've typed in a mini-transcript below because the podcast audio was unavailable online at posting time.

A Jolly Good Slapping
[The anonymous male questioner speaks in plummy-posh voice, with self-satisfied pauses following each multisyllabic word. Doris Lessing speaks in an assertive yet slightly chipmunky octogenarian voice, pausing for breath and her canny punchlines.]

Minute 19:55 of the Times Talks Books Podcast 10/11/06, Doris Lessing Part Two:
Male Questioner: “I speak from enormous ignorance about your work, except that my wife is one of your best fans, but I wanted to ask you, can you think of anything better than music to characterise what might be said to hold all the diverse African peoples together?”

Lessing: “Well I don’t see why music, which is different in every part of Africa, should apply to the whole continent. You know I must say, you say that your wife is a fan--you’ve got no idea how often female writers hear the following: ‘Oh, my wife loves your work!'--You know what you really want to do, I have to tell you, is to give this very conceited male a jolly good slapping. [audience laughter and applause] Right? …These little women with their little minor interests, is what you’re suggesting. Now, about the music…”

Having dispatched the diss, Lessing talks about real and rubbish African sculpture art, then makes the point (at Minute 23:30) that there is no reason the African continent should be any more united culturally than the European or South American continents.

At Minute 25:30 of Part Two a female audience member says she wants “to balance things out” and states that the Doris Lessing books on her shelf were all placed there by her husband. Lessing says, “Really. Oh, that’s good,” and then she takes another swipe at male-centric attitudes:

“I do get letters from men from everywhere, interestingly, often about The Golden Notebook. A letter I get regularly says, ‘I have given The Golden Notebook to my wife, daughter, mistress or whatever, in order to show that women don’t always have to talk about babies and cooking.’" [followed by a Lessing chortle, and more audience appreciation]

So that's what Doris Lessing might say: a verbal slap, a caution against continental lumping, and an assertion that what she wrote is bigger than babies and cooking.


Dan Chaon's Haunting Identities

The scariest ghost stories don't howl and thunder--they stalk and whisper. PRI: Selected Shorts recently posted the audio of Boyd Gaines reading Dan Chaon's "The Bees," a grownup horror story that stalks both the protagonist and the listener. The hour-long podcast, titled "A Tale of Terror," is apparently timed to celebrate our October cavities-and-hooker-costumes holiday, but the story would be equally scary by a midsummer campfire.

Harken to "The Bees"
Chaon avoids foreshadowing of the heavy-stomping school. His most unsettling moments are created with creepily delicate language, like the unforgettable "little wet mandibles" at Minute 50, language which carries you with unwanted beauty through the climax of the story. Once you get to the end of "The Bees," you should go back to the first section to fully appreciate the horrific symmetry of the final image. For relief, the last few minutes of the podcast feature a calm discussion between host Isaiah Sheffer and Dan Chaon on eeriness in the short story (interview audio only). The full-length podcast won't be available for free downloading past mid-November 2009, so hustle your trick-or-treat cursor over to iTunes and get Selected Shorts' "A Tale of Terror" podcast from 10/19/09 before the copyright curfew takes it away.

The B's Have It
The text of the opening paragraphs of "The Bees" can be read on McSweeney's website. The story was commissioned by Michael Chabon for McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales (spooky spelling trivia: take the "bee" out of Chabon and you get Chaon!). In this interview in "The Believer" Chaon talks about his earlier books and reveals that some of his inspiration for "The Bees" came from a song with the same title by Belly.

"The Shepherdess" and The Internet
Chaon's "The Shepherdess" is not a horror tale in flounces, but an interestingly structured short story about the difference between noticing and perceiving. His most recent novel, Await Your Reply, twists identity, geography, and time into a head-spinning recombination. Reviews of Await Your Reply have called it "the first great novel about the Internet" and "mesmerizing." I have yet to find a suitable podcast interview that doesn't hint too much at the novel's ending (I'm spoiler-phobic), so for now if you want to listen to Chaon's fiction you'll have to stick to "The Bees" from PRI: Selected Shorts (but download it soon). Once you've read Await Your Reply, and cannot be despoiled of its surprises, I highly recommend reading these interviews with Chaon at Bookslut and The Millions.


Justine Larbalestier on Liar's True Colors

Last summer the cover photo of a teenage girl on the advance reader copies (ARCs) of the American edition of Justine Larbalestier's Liar caused consternation. The first-person narrator vows to stop lying on page one, and describes herself as biracial in the first ten pages--yet the ARC cover image was of an unambiguously caucasian girl. The extra doubt suggested by the cover threatened to overbalance the delicately pitched reliability of Liar's narrator from the get-go.

Pre-Publication Alarm
Early readers and reviewers cried foul--what possible justification was there for putting a white face on the cover of a book narrated by a biracial teenager? The publisher, Bloomsbury Children's Books, did the right thing and re-shot the image (you can see the white and black covers in this article at Publisher's Weekly). The new cover is both a happy ending for Liar's US edition and the beginning of an important discussion about book marketing and race. The author does a great job of starting this discussion in an audio interview with CBC's Q radio that was recorded shortly after the cover redo, and also on her blog.

Listen to Larbalestier
You can listen to Larbalestier's interview online at CBC's (unchronological!) Q archive page--search for the podcast for August 28, 2009, and if you're not a Dolores O'Riordan of the Cranberries fan, fast forward to Minute 20, or about 25% of the way across audio bar. You can also download the audio of the Cranberries/Liar interview from CBC's Q podcast on iTunes (and kudos to CBC for keeping archived podcasts available for more than a month). Again, the Larbalestier interview begins at Minute 20 and lasts about 20 minutes.


Lorrie Moore's Balsamic Voice

Lorrie Moore's new novel, A Gate At The Stairs, is narrated by Tassie Keltjin, the daughter of a gourmet potato farmer/smuggler, and the central plot sautés around an ambiguously-partnered chef who employs Tassie as a nanny. Much haute-foodie verbiage ensues, so when I recently listened to a podcast of Moore reading her short story, "Paper Losses," the influence of A Gate At The Stairs made me consider Moore's spoken voice in gustatory terms. The flavors suggested are dark cherries and balsamic vinegar. When Moore reads aloud she conveys an end-of-summer sweetness swirled (but not blended) with the balsamic acerbity of a woman who's too smart to miss the aesthetic indignities of her marital dismantling, but who is also too human to deny the emotional cost, or the sweetness of the children the marriage produced. There's also Moore's whisky sibilance, which aerates her voice-vinaigrette with every "s." (I know this is over the top, but this is what happens when you make your fans wait more than a decade for a new book: they get a bad case of imitative-pretentious prose palate.)

You can count on Moore to avenge roguery with humor, and in "Paper Losses" the protagonist's wit is both heartbreaking and triumphant. The story is dry, dry, dry, but also full-bodied, and surprisingly un-depressing, thanks to Moore's complex voice, both on the page and as recorded. You can listen to Lorrie Moore read "Paper Losses" at the Guardian Books archive (about 25 minutes) and come up with your own voice flavors. You can also read the text of "Paper Losses" on the New Yorker's fiction archive.

For a writer so famed for her literary voice, Lorrie Moore's actual voice is rather scarce online. She's done radio snippets to promote A Gate At The Stairs, and the interview she did with Scott Simon for Weekend Edition in early September is one of my favorites (9 minutes). The video of Moore's address to BookExpo America 2009 (18 minutes) is also available online.

I'm still waiting for an in-depth audio interview with Moore about A Gate At The Stairs. Perhaps Tom Ashbrook will interview her for an hour at On Point when she comes to the Boston area to read at Brookline Booksmith, or maybe Michael Silverblatt will caramelize her on Bookworm. If so, I'll post updated links. In the meantime, you can read my review of A Gate At The Stairs for IdentityTheory.com, in which I try to convey the scope of the novel without spoiling the plot.


Labor Day Podcast: Ron Carlson's Classic Tale of Terrycloth and Theoretical Math

Ron Carlson's short story, "Towel Season" (first published in Esquire in 1998) is a modern classic, as much about reconciling vocation and family life, as a portrait of summer in a neighborhood where recursive towels and seemingly fixed-value adults travel from cookout to cookout. The story is narrated by a theoretical mathematician who's grasping after his big discovery, the one that will save him from plain old applied engineering. Innumerates need not fear the subject matter: the process of theoretical math is suggested in visual, accessible language. The story runs more wet than dry, and it's a pleasure to follow the trail of towels to the silver bus at the puzzle-like ending, where the towels are dropped and math and theory get melded with marriage.

PRI: Selected Shorts has reposted the audio of actor James Naughton reading "Towel Season" in their Selected Shorts iTunes podcast just in time for Labor Day 2009. Naughton reads with unassuming comedic timing, and his voice lends a everyman quality to the suburban yet "unsettled" character of Edison. The "Towel Season" audio runs about 35 minutes (long enough to grill some boneless chicken), and it's followed by "A Bad Joke," a short Ha Jin story read by B.D. Wong. The combined podcast, titled "Figuring It Out," will be available for free download for four weeks.

If you must hear "Towel Season" after the weather's cooled and the title has expired from the podcast, you can purchase the Selected Shorts: William Hurt Collection 3-CD compilation from NPR. The Collection includes audio of Hurt reading "Towel Season," as well as stories by Aleksander Hemon, Richard Ford, and Tobias Wolff.

Non-audio news: Carlson's most recent book is the novel The Signal. Carlson talks about his new book, and also his "Towel Season" story, in this profile from The Orange County Register.


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Hothouse Career (So Far)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is only in her early thirties but she has already written a lauded coming-of-age début (Purple Hibiscus), won the Orange Broadband Prize for her definitive novel of the Biafran war (Half A Yellow Sun), published a collection of insightful short stories set in Nigeria and the U.S. (The Thing Around Your Neck), completed a Master's in Creative Writing at Johns Hopkins and also a Master's in African Studies from Yale, and in 2008 she received a five-year "genius" fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation. A native of Nigeria, Adichie has spent a significant amount of time in the U.S., and plans to continue her bi-continental residency.

I doubt the MacArthur Foundation panel had to deliberate more than 30 seconds before awarding her a fellowship. Lord knows what she will accomplish now that she is free to write full-time--I myself can't wait to read her next book, but in the meantime, there are several interesting Adichie audio interviews available to while away the anticipation and deepen your understanding of her work.

What you discover listening to the podcasts is that Adichie is a most genial genius. In spite of her many garlands, she is modest about her awards, responds to all questions with an open mind, and sports a very low laugh threshold. Adichie is also serious about difficult topics without being preachy or shrill, and explains her views of the Biafran struggle and current Nigerian politics in a way that is easy to understand whether you are familiar with the history or not. Her interviewers wisely give her plenty of air time, creating podcasts that showcase both Adichie's intelligence and good nature.

An Hour of Family and Power
In June of 2009, close to the publication date of her short story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck, Adichie spent nearly an hour with Eleanor Wachtel of CBC's Writers & Co. The podcast provides a survey of Adichie's fast-track career and a comprehensive profile of the artist in her own words. Wachtel's questions cover a lot of Adichie's family background and the process through which the experiences of family members and family friends inspired her to write about a war that ended before she was born. Wachtel also draws Adichie out on women's roles in pre- and post-colonial Nigeria, with anecdotes about Adichie's great-grandmother, who inspired the story "The Headstrong Historian" in the new story collection (Minute 4), and how the lingering effects of Victorian Christianity continue to distort contemporary Nigerian women's attitudes toward work and marriage. The podcast also includes Adichie's perceptive comments on the aspirational culture of America, and the effect that emigration has on couples who move to the U.S. from Nigeria.

The Writers & Co. Adichie audio interview is only available for online listening at the CBC online archive--scroll down the June 2009 schedule listing to the second interview and click on the arrow beneath the photo of Adichie and Wachtel. (Podcasts of more recent Writers & Co. interviews are available on iTunes are available for download; listings expire after four weeks.)

Half A Yellow Sun Burns On
In her interview with Wachtel, Adichie says she wrote Half A Yellow Sun to start a conversation about the Biafran War, and indeed her novel has filled a gap in history, even in Nigeria, where the events of May 1967-1970 are not yet taught in schools and not always discussed, even within families who experienced loss and displacement. There are two podcasts that cover the novel in detail, both of which would be best listened to after reading the novel, as they reveal a fair amount of plot.

A MacArthur Genius At Your Book Club
Imagine Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie attending your book club meeting, answering a bunch of questions, plus reading aloud three excerpts from Half A Yellow Sun. This 52-minute World Book Club podcast on Half A Yellow Sun from the BBC (recorded in June of 2009) can fulfill the fantasy. All that's missing is the wine. Host Harriet Gilbert and the assembled World Book Club studio and email audience do a great job of asking questions about the novel's inspiration, characterization, structure, and politics.

The excerpts that Adichie reads aloud include an early scene when the new flag of Biafra, with its image of half a yellow sun, is unfurled (Minute 4:20), a description of a family reunion at a refugee camp (Minute 23:30), and a near-mythical yet possibly historical train scene that conveys the personal and familial horror of war (Minute 38:10).

This Half A Yellow Sun book club interview is available for downloading from the World Book Club iTunes podcast and also online at the BBC. But I can't emphasize this enough--unlike your real-life book club, you must finish Half A Yellow Sun before you listen, or you will do yourself the disservice of diluting the book's power in advance.

Pre-Genius At Ease
Edward Champion interviewed Adichie back in 2007 for his inimitable Bat Segundo Show (BSS #141) when Half A Yellow Sun was already on the rise. The result is a 36 minutes of frank and provocative chat in a tone of intelligent informality. (Minute 1 contains a bit of funky Bat Segundo audio theatricality which should be skipped if you are offended by off-color Kleenex humor, which Adichie apparently is not). The conversation, which sounds like it was recorded in a coffee shop yet is clearly audible, contains interesting exchanges on the use of point-of-view in war novels, and also some rather unique topics not found in other interviews, including Adichie's literary approach to sex scenes (Minute 13) and the themes of class and body odor (Minute 16), as well as a serious discussion of the effectiveness of using evocative rather than exhaustive detail to depict scenes of violence. The BSS #141 Chimamanda Adichie interview is available for listening online. Other unique author interviews are available from the Bat Segundo Show A-Z Guest List.


A.S. Byatt: Plunder and Possession

Fans of A.S. Byatt who are impatient for the U.S. release of The Children's Book (October 2009) can fill the gap with two podcasts from the Guardian (UK). The first, a 17-minute audio clip from Claire Armitstead's Guardian Book of the Week series, features Byatt reading the first chapter of The Children's Book, followed by some discussion of the characters and Byatt's inspiration. This podcast can be listened to online at the Guardian's Book of the Week archive.

Twaddle-Free Prof Chat
The second podcast is a Guardian Book Club love-wallow of interview and Q & A about Possession, Byatt's 1990 Booker Prize novel (and it's full of spoilers, so read the book first). This is 51 minutes of audio you can download from The Guardian Books iTunes listing (summer of 2009) and listen to on your next ramble (also available on the site archive). John Mullan, Guardian book critic and host of the Book Club, is a repeat Possession reader; he plus the assembled devotees get a lot out of Byatt with swotty-yet-accessible questions. It's like listening in on an extremely amicable fac lounge discussion at University College London (where Byatt used to teach, and where Mullan currently teaches) without having to pursue an advanced degree. Byatt tells Mullan that she agreed to the Guardian Book Club event because Mullan is one of the few critics whose reviews "restore writing to the reader--you write reviews in really good English with no twaddle" (Minute 14:40).

From Browning to Bathrooms
Among the pleasures to be heard in the Guardian Book Club podcast on Possession:

the naming of the 19th century poets that Byatt read as a child (Tennyson and Browning),

Byatt recounting her desire to branch out from the "she felt" narrative construct,

Byatt riffing on George Eliot's and Honoré de Balzac's point-of-view strategies,

Byatt rueing the prevalance of twaddle in literary deconstruction, tempered by a deep bow to Jacques Derrida's "La Mythologie Blanche" (Byatt calls it "La Métaphore Blanche," a logical fusion),

Byatt giving a nod to Terry Pratchett and the consequences of loving one's characters,

Byatt sharing a retroactive glimpse of the Coleridge scholar whose activities in the British Library first inspired the title Possession (and then explaining the layers of meaning the word subsequently generated in Byatt's linguistically hyperactive brain),

Byatt responding to a question about the significance and sourcing of allegorical names in fiction, and

Byatt running with an audience member's mention of the startling frequency of bathrooms in her oeuvre, illuminated by a quote from poet George Herbert (it has more to do with light and reflection than loos).

If you want a condensed sample of Byatt's allusive agility, fast-forward to the allusionpalooza in Minutes 41-44, during which Byatt manages to flit from Charles Dickins, to critic F.R. Leavis, to le nouveau roman, to Byatt quoting Iris Murdoch quoting Sartre on fiction as frame, to the scarring and wildly exciting effect the mirror in Disney's Snow White had on the young Antonia, to the Quakers' attitude toward selfhood and looking at one's reflection, to using a hairdryer to clear the fogginess in hotel bathroom mirrors, to Sylvia Plath's poem "Mirror" which Byatt interprets in this interview as describing a mother's face rising out of the mirror like a terrible fish--all this in three minutes of audio. Phew. But it is quite fun to listen to.

Byatt Answers a "Humdinger" of a Question
When an audience member asks Byatt about whether women can be "possessed" by a relationship and still maintain enough aloofness for intellectual creativity at Minute 45:30, Byatt, mother of four, says "That's a humdinger of a question," and notes that it's probably the first time she's ever used that word. She goes on to give a thoughtful, frank, and good-natured answer, endorsing D.H. Lawrence's ideal of balanced human relationships as attempted in Women in Love, while also noting that regardless of intentions or centuries, the biological reality of raising small children affects a woman's independence. Of course, that's not all: at Minute 48 Byatt adds a quick reference to a neuroscientist's study of medieval romantic love, where the objective is for two to become one, and then die, an idea that Byatt does not endorse.

If you liked Possession, or if you like idea-based lit chattiness, you're bound to enjoy listening to A.S. Byatt and the Guardian Book Club plunder three centuries of literature in this lively discussion of a dual-century book based on academics and poets in love.


Post-Father's Day Poems

First of all, congrats to all the dads who contrived to spend Father's Day with their kids instead of celebrating their mistresses' "magnificent parts"--you have demonstrated that you understand symbolic gesture better than the average polithario. (Couldn't Governor Sanford, a father of four, have picked one of the other 51 weekends in the year to go missing for action?)

I meant to do a Father's Day post to honor the steadfast dads I know (including my favorite soccer dad), and maybe even write a mawkish Father's Day sonnet or two, but my daughter's mid-June surgery and recovery (she's fine now) left no time or energy for such frivolities (and here's a shout-out to my dad for coming back east on short notice to help). Besides, when I turned to recent podcasts on fatherhood, I was not moved. All I could find was a memoirist recounting har-har anecdotes of swim diaper apprenticeship while lamenting the bygone days of hands-off dapper daddying. Fathers should know better.

Poets Raised by Stepfathers and Foster Fathers
Trying to find something more meaningful, I kept thinking of a favorite poem by Ben Jonson, a epitaph titled "On My First Son," first published in 1616. The poem is too sad for Father's Day, but since we are almost in July, I feel I can post it, along with a link to a Poetry Off the Shelf podcast about Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays" (1962), a poem that appreciates some of the traditional--even menial--duties that devoted fathers perform without complaint, or mincing after media medals of commendation (scroll down for Hayden audio link).

17th Century Dad Who Loved Too Much
Playwright and poet Ben Jonson (1572-1637) never knew his biological father, but that didn't handicap him from being full of father-feeling toward his own children. His first son, also named Benjamin (which in Hebrew means "child of my right hand"), died of the plague on his seventh birthday. In "On My First Son" Jonson celebrates the boy's life and tries to find faith-based solace in the thought that Benjamin, by dying young, has been spared the harsher aspects of life and longevity. The conceit in the poem is that Jonson's abundant love for his son was the "sin" that provoked God into reclaiming the boy as payback after exactly seven years.

On My First Son

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy
Seven years thou'wert lent to me, and I thee pay.
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day,
O could I lose all father now! for why
Will man lament the state he should envy,
To have so soon 'scaped world's and flesh's rage,
And, if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and asked, say "Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry."
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such
As what he loves may never like too much.

Jonson declares his son "his best piece of poetry," in a nice conflation of love and inspiration, the success of which is proven by the enduring appeal of the poem. He also wrote an epitaph "On My First Daughter" for Mary, who died aged six months.

"Love's austere and lonely offices"
The Poetry Foundation's Poetry Off the Shelf podcasts (also on iTunes) are a reliable delight--producer Curtis Fox usually packs a theme, an interview with a poet, and the reading of a poem or two into no more than 20 minutes (average podcast lasts 10 minutes). Poetry Off the Shelf's "Honor Thy Father's Day" podcast (iTunes link) includes a Library of Congress recording of the late Robert Hayden reading his 1976 poem, "Those Winter Sundays," an eloquent poem of complex emotion expressed in accessible language, and which ends with the beautiful lines, "What did I know, what did I know/of love's austere and lonely offices?" Fox discusses the poem with contemporary poet Terrance Hayes, who reads his own poem "For Robert Hayden" afterward. The Poetry Foundation's site has the text of "Those Winter Sundays" online, and offers bio pages on Hayden and Hayes, with links to more poems. There is also a clickable list of 60 Father's Day poems.


Sarah Waters on Post-War Posh and Poltergeists

Novelist Sarah Waters is remarkably substantive and consistent in interviews about her fifth book, The Little Stranger, which means she talks a lot about how shifts in the post-WWII British economy reduced the pool of servants available to the upper-middle class, which put both their grand edifices and their Polo-advert way of life in peril. Peril, in the hands of Waters, can tend toward the Gothic, and since she was already interested in haunted house novels, she included a poltergeist presence at Hundreds Hall, the Warwickshire pile that serves as the setting for class and supernatural clashes in The Little Stranger. (Waters lists her top ten ghost novels on her Virago site.)

Sticky Lit Labels
At the outset of her career Waters's self-deprecatory impulse led her to categorize her first novel, Tipping the Velvet (1998), as a "lesbo-historical romp," a label that stuck to her subsequent Victorian London novels Affinity (1999) and Fingersmith (2002) almost too well, because it now demands that interviewers and reviewers note the lack of both lesbians and romp in The Little Stranger, even though her fourth book, The Night Watch (2006), which takes place during WWII, was already less of a romp. (Ron Hogan's non-audio interview with Waters, posted at indiebound.com, covers Waters's early Victorian period quite nicely.)

Facts Lead to Fiction
Research seems to inspire Waters. The idea and the title for Tipping the Velvet came to her while she was completing her thesis on lesbian and gay writing from the late 19th century for her PhD in English Literature. The wartime research she did for The Night Watch set up the idea for The Little Stranger. You can read several interesting essays about her research methods and discoveries on the "Library" page of her Virago website (scroll down to the links underneath the images of her book covers).

Sarah Waters Podcast Links
Waters is easy to listen to, since she enunciates clearly without overemphasis (no rewinding needed), and even when she's talking about research, her genuine engagement comes across more as cool-prof than swotty-toff. She's also more prone to laugh than take offense at the inevitable lesbo-romp questions, and is generally genial with her interviewers. These episodes will provide context for The Little Stranger, particularly if you're not an expert in the British class system, where in the 1940s no uppercrust mother would wish for a doctor as a son-in-law.

Succinct Waters
Pre-Hay: This 6 1/2 minute Sara Waters video interview was recorded with The Guardian's Rebecca Lovell before the 2009 Hay Festival of Books in Wales. It's been edited into a sort of monologue. Waters is charming as she covers the lesbian label issue, the historical context of The Little Stranger, the paranormal, her writing discipline, and the experience of re-reading Mary McCarthy's The Group. This clip doesn't seem to be available for downloading from iTunes, but you can view it online here.

Mid-Hay: This podcasted interview with The Guardian Book Club's Claire Armitstead was recorded during the Hay Festival and covers similar ground to the video above, but it is transportable on your iPod. The Waters segment begins at Minute 3 and ends around Minute 7. It's currently available from the Guardian's Book Club podcast on iTunes, and there's an online link on the Guardian Haycast website.

Tenebrous Waters
This 30-minute podcast, from The Bat Segundo Show Sarah Waters II (#287), is an in-depth, quick-striding conversation. Host Edward Champion's idiosyncratic interviewing style brings out more of Water's Gothic sensibility, and he's well-informed on the influences in her work. The audio is currently available for downloading on The Bat Segundo Show's iTunes page, and it's also accessible, with a helpful text summary and transcribed excerpt, on the The Bat Segundo website. The website page also includes a clickable link to Champion's 2006 interview with Waters (BSS #37) in which they discussed The Night Watch, and other things.

Profiled in Print
Malcom McCrum's text profile of Waters, notable for it comprehensiveness, is available online at The Observer site.


Mavis Gallant: Ageless, Acute & Aloud

Mavis Gallant, Maître of the short story, Canadian citizen and long-time Parisienne, might be 86, but she is also long on mental agility and wit and her work is not fading away. Gallant's artistry is best absorbed in the original--to read her stories on the printed page is to acquire the DNA of another life--but there are times when we can't sit down and read, and yet the mind is still hungry. Luckily there is plenty of Gallant-appreciation available on audio, most of it downloadable. I recommend tucking a good dose into your iPod--Gallant will reconnect you to the thick taproot of life. Here's a selection of what's currently available:

"Madame, je vous aime."
Just a week ago, Gallant was interviewed from a Paris radio studio by Jian Ghomeshi of CBC's Q on the occasion of the Canadian publication of Going Ashore, a collection of her "lost or missing" stories. Gallant trades repartee with an admiring Ghomeshi, who admits he has trouble keeping up with her "great mind." (Ghomeshi is the cool-headed interviewer who handled Billy Bobs' April 2009 fugue-up and mashed-potato diss with Northern aplomb.) Ghomeshi's Gallant interview features little awkwardness and much merriment, and it provides substantial insight into the author's career and scope in about 17 minutes. It's available on CBC's Q iTunes podcast (Gallant interview begins at Minute 17:30) and also from the CBC Q past episodes web page (search for "Mavis Gallant" in the archive). She talks about the process of revisiting her early stories and she relates the dramatic true-life story of her recent accident: 16 months ago she collapsed on the floor of her Paris apartment and lay there for three days until she was rescued by her concierge (Minute 25). At Minute 32, when Ghomeshi mentions the "master of the short story" honoria, Gallant deflects the title and says she is "grateful to have lasted." Though her mind "now goes faster than her hands," Gallant is still at work, editing her journals and working on a story. Praise the concierge for that.

Details Like Burrs
A Gallant Writer Celebrated, the current offering from the PRI: Selected Shorts podcast, begins with a worshipful introduction by none other than Jhumpa Lahiri, who says of Gallant, "I have re-read her more often than any other writer I know" (Minute 3:45). She salutes Gallant's intelligent, idiosyncratic vision, and lauds Gallant's use of unexpected details to go "elbow-deep" into the hearts of her characters. Lahiri hits on what makes Gallant's stories so memorable: "Once encountered, these details, however subtle, stick like burrs" (Minute 4:27). Then, most wonderfully, Selected Shorts deviates from their usual surrogate reader policy to allow Gallant to read her own "Grippes and Poche," a not-so-short story which was first published in 1982. Gallant's audio begins at Minute 9:20 and lasts about 50 minutes--pausing not recommended.

UPDATE: Granta's site has videos of a joint Jhumpa Lahiri and Mavis Gallant reading and Q & A at the Village Voice Bookshop in Paris, recorded in February 2009. (Online only; takes a while to load.) Lahiri's print interview with Mavis Gallant is in the current issue of Granta (#106); purchase required.

Taxman or Muse?
Don't be intimidated by the French names in the title--"Grippes and Poche" may be set in Paris, but it is written in English and read on this podcast in Gallant's vivacious and consonant-crisp voice. The story is rich with the perspicacity of a mature talent. It depicts its startling thesis--tax auditing as literary collaboration and inspiration--with ready poignance and well-timed humor. Early on, the live audience laughs at this example of a Gallant sticky-burr sentence: "Grippes's unwise and furtive moves with trifling sums, his somewhat paranoid disagreements with California over exchange, had finally caught the eye of the Bank of France, as a glistening minnow attracts a dozing whale."

(PRI: Selected Shorts offers their podcasts for free for a limited time period, so if you're tempted, download A Gallant Writer Celebrated now from iTunes, or from PRI's Selected Shorts site--scroll down to the "Online" link.)

Madrid on Nothing A Day
If you're new to Gallant, I recommend starting with this 33-minute New Yorker: Fiction podcast from 2007 titled Waiting. (Unusually and delightfully, these podcasts do not seem to expire from the iTunes listing or from the magazine's online audio archive, so it should be available regardless of when you come across this post.) Antonya Nelson, another élévatrice of the short story métier, selected Gallant's "When We Were Nearly Young" from the New Yorker's 1962 archive to read aloud and discuss with fiction editor Deborah Treisman (story begins near Minute 4, but the whole podcast is worth the listen ). "When We Were Nearly Young" is narrated in the first person by an underfunded expat who hangs around Madrid with an intriguing and equally peseta-less group of Spaniards. Gallant recounts their laid-back days with lyrical phrasing but resists romanticizing the characters' existential plight. The story is permeated with questions of fate and occupation and passivity. I won't spoil the (subtle) dénouement by telling more, but I highly recommend listening to Nelson's evocative reading, and to her bracketing conversations with Treisman. Treisman enacts un petit dénouement of her own in the post-story discussion by recounting the pre-internet dastardliness that prolonged Gallant's impoverishment abroad, in spite of her success at The New Yorker (Minute 30).

85 Years in 52 Minutes
In 2008 Eleanor Wachtel of the CBC conducted an especially chummy and chronological 52-minute audio interview with Gallant for her Writers & Company radio show. This episode is not currently available on iTunes, but you can listen to it online here and read a related profile here. Gallant seems to remember everything. The audio interview covers Gallant's eventful childhood, her start in journalism, her brief yet heightened encounter with Jean-Paul Sartre in Montreal (Minute 22), her move to Paris, the story of her impoverishment, and her writing inspirations and methods.

In the non-audio category:
Interviews from April and May 2009 with The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail.
Back in 1997 Gallant kept an online diary for Slate.com describing her life in an August-abandoned Paris. I recommend all five sweet-and-savory entries, as each one offers at least one sticky-burr detail. If you don't own any books by Gallant, I recommend The Collected Stories (1996), with its handsome rouge-et-noir dustjacket and thick-cut pages and multiple decades of stories, IF you can find a copy: in the U.S. it is dégueulassely out-of-print.


Oxford Poetry Scandal: Listen to Audio from Padel and Walcott; Read Mehrota

Who knew poetry was such a lecherous and backstabbing business?

Derek Walcott cancelled his campaign to become the Oxford Professor of Poetry after the combination of whispering emails to journalists and an anonymous mailshot to Oxford dons rejuvenated allegations of his sexual harassment of a Harvard and a Boston University student in the 1980s. That left a field of two, Arvind Krishna Mehrota and Ruth Padel. Decrying the furor, Padel won. She reigned as poetry-chair-elect for nine days, until...

It became known that Padel had sent tip-off emails, with strange spellings, about the Walcott allegations to the press. She copped to the emails and resigned. She continues to deny all knowledge of how envelopes containing photocopies of pertinent pages from the lyrically titled The Lecherous Professor arrived at the letter boxes of Oxford voters at a crucial point in the campaign. The missives were unadorned by return address or cover note (postmarked: London). Perhaps the Padelophiles (or, more likely, the Walcottophobes) over-exerted themselves with batch photocopying copyrighted material and lacked the energy to identify themselves?

Walcott, already laureled by the Nobel Prize in 1992, has refrained from commenting on the email revelation. Padel is apologizing, speculating about conspiracy, and pleading naivété. Mehrota seems above scandal but may not have enough support to prevail. Oxford University has put the contest in time-out. (The current Oxford Professor of Poetry, Christopher Ricks, remains unsullied and is expected to finish out his term to the end of September.)

In case you want to compare the poetic chops of the first-round rivals, here are some links:

Ruth Padel discussing her collection Darwin, A Life in Poems and reading the poem "In the Seraglio" on Nature's site (go down the left panel to the third forward arrow; 11-minute segment will pop up in blue player top left, with download option). Padel is one of Charles Darwin's 72 grandchildren--apparently his genes are favored to survive.

From 2007: Derek Walcott talks about travel and St. Lucia with NPR's Jackie Lyden, and reads his poem "Sea Grapes" (poem text is included on launch page). Approximately 8 minutes.

The BBC's Harriet Gilbert interviews Derek Walcott about his epic poem "Omerus" for the BBC's World Book Club (use "Quick Find" if listing is not visible). Also available on iTunes as of this posting. 52 and 1/2 minutes.

I was unable to locate audio from Arvind Krishna Mehrota, so this link is text-only, to his poems "House by the Mill" and "Bhojpuri Descant."  A few more here.

If the ears have it, I think it's Walcott all the way, as long as lechery stays on the page.


Ayelet Waldman, The Divulging Mother

We're back to regular mothers' days now, the ones without lilacs or overbuttered toast in bed, which leads me to post some links to podcasted interviews with Ayelet Waldman, author of Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace. Right before Official Mother's Day 2009, Waldman, a mother of four, was interviewed by Terry Gross on WHYY's Fresh Air and by Leonard Lopate for his show on WNYC to promote her memoir of motherhood.  Both interviews display what a good talker Waldman is: articulate yet relaxed, open and funny and intelligent, and extraordinarily comfortable with public self-divulgence.

Motherhood and Passion
Bad Mother was sparked by an essay published in The New York Times' "Modern Love" column that extolled Waldman's superseding love for her husband, literary star Michael Chabon, and which touched a zeitgeist nerve. The essay garnered her internet frissons and brickbats plus an appearance on Oprah. In retrospect the controversy seems to be one of semantics--erotic love vs. maternal love--but from the fallout a mommy memoirist was born. The book covers other aspects of motherhood and marriage within the author's economically comfortable experience--this is no Angela's Ashes--but it is unusual in that it is the mommy calling out the mommy.

Dropping Criminals for Writing with Toddlers
Waldman decided to drop her career as a federal criminal defender when she became envious of the time Chabon was spending with her daughter, and the time that her daughter was spending with Chabon. With the perfect mentor already in the house, she combined writing with motherhood, beginning with a series of mommy mystery books and moving onto less genre-ish fiction with Daughter's Keeper and Love and Other Impossible Pursuits (for which Natalie Portman was cast in the upcoming movie, natch).

Intimacy vs. Philosophy
The Bad Mother interviews are both about 30 minutes long and cover similar ground, but the tones are dissimilar. Waldman's emotional openness with Terry Gross is startling and comes early (it's certainly too intense for the child-passenger portion of your carpool). She shares poignant details of a pregnancy that raised genetic concerns, and the lack of self-protectiveness in her recounting of how she and her husband made the decision to abort is disarming and brave. Waldman also talks without coyness about bipolar disorder and her early sexual experience. In the Leonard Lopate interview she is frank but breezier, and also more composed (perhaps because it came after). If you can handle an emotional interview that is by turns painful and wry, listen to the Fresh Air podcast; if you want to keep it lighter but still get a good idea of the book, listen to the Lopate.  In both conversations I think Waldman makes a valiant case for honesty as empowerment.

Ayelet Waldman on Fresh Air with Terry Gross on iTunes and NPR site (with excerpt)
Ayelet Waldman on The Leonard Lopate Show: on iTunes and WNYC site
Ayelet Waldman's site
Q & A with Waldman in SF Gate.

[Warning:  downloads sometimes expire. If you want it, download soon and listen whenever.]


Lynn Freed Reads "Ma, A Memoir"

Stories about mothers can be cloying or whiny, but Lynn Freed's "Ma, A Memoir" is neither. Told from the point of view of a middle-aged daughter of drama-prone parents, this story mixes calm assessment with tart affection. Its themes of marriage, love, illness, and egoism circulate among the three characters in dialogue that is both realistic and artful.  Just like Cheever's "Reunion," Freed's "Ma, A Memoir" creates a poignant filial history in less time than it takes most people to consume a cocktail or a cup of tea. Sip and listen!

A Tale With Two Recordings
Narrative Magazine offers a 6-minute recording of Freed reading her own story online here (free registration is required to access Narrative's site; the audio is not downloadable regardless). As of this posting, PRI: Selected Shorts also includes a recording of Marian Seldes reading "Ma, A Memoir" on iTunes, at the end of a 4-story episode called "Family Relations" (Freed's story begins at Minute 48:30).  If you want the Seldes recording, you should download it now; the PRI Selected Shorts episodes expire after about a month for copyright reasons.

The text of "Ma, A Memoir" is included in Freed's collection, The Curse of the Appropriate Man, and it's also stored on The New Yorker's archive (for subscribers only).


Elizabeth Strout Talks About Olive Kitteridge (Pulitzer Prizewinner)

Update 7/09: The pre-Pulitzer podcast discussed below is no longer on iTunes. To listen to Elizabeth Strout's interview at "Pen On Fire" from your computer, click on this archived audio (wait through short static preamble) from the "Pen on Fire" archive (search box top left). Also, Tom Ashbrook's post-Pulitzer interview with Elizabeth Strout for NPR's "On Point" can be listened to online (click on "Listen" button above headline).

The "Pen On Fire" Elizabeth Strout interview was recorded before Olive Kitteridge won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, which is perhaps a blessing, for it allows the conversation to focus on the book, and the process of writing it, rather than the fol-de-rol that accompanies prizes. (Though Strout deserves a hearty down-Maine slap on the shoulders for winning the Pulitzer, especially since her book, a collection of 13 linked stories, bobs in the choppy wake of bigger novels.)

The Empathetic Author
There are scant audio interviews with Elizabeth Strout available for download, and in this recently recorded chat with Barbara DeMarco-Barrett for her "Writers on Writing/Pen on Fire" podcast series, the author sounds nothing like her heroine. Strout sounds affable, open, and unprickly--it's hard to imagine her stealing anyone's lingerie just to teach them lesson. Strout also comes across as extraordinarily curious about what it's like to be other people, which might explain how she could get so deep inside a character so apparently unlike herself.

Olive Gets Her Book
The 27-minute interview covers Strout's accumulative writing process for Olive Kitteridge, beginning with sketched scenes, which firmed up when she wrote the story which contained the delicious bra-stealing incident. Strout says that Olive seemed like "a very powerful force on the page," and she quickly understood that "this Olive character was eventually going to have her own book," which Strout describes as a collection of "tales." (Minutes 1-2). The podcast episode lives up to its "Writers on Writing" title, with plenty of discussion of craft issues, including short stories vs. novels, whether strong characters are easier to write, the use of 1st person vs. 3rd person point-of-view, the author's distance from subject matter, and the practice of taking things from life. I think it would also be of interest to a book clubber.

From Cocktail Waitress to J.D. to Writer
Strout gamely talks about her lean years after college, when she decided to be a cocktail waitress who wrote stories (Minute 21:30). When literary success remained elusive, she turned to law school, and then six months into her new career discovered she was a "terrible, terrible lawyer" (Minute 22). Strout considered nursing school, but somehow failed to register, and eventually she managed to combine teaching with raising a family and writing. Her earlier successes include the novels Amy and Isabelle (1998), and Abide With Me (2006).

Crotchedy Excerpts
Near the beginning of the podcast Strout reads a portion of the section of Olive Kitteridge called "Security," when Olive is thinking about a trip to help her son with his expanding family in New York (Minute 6:45). Try as she might, Strout doesn't sound quite as crotchety as Olive. For a stronger flavor of Olive in her own, print-based voice, you can read an excerpt here (Olive's dialogue begins about halfway through).

Audio Downloads
The interview is available on DeMarco-Barrett's "Writers on Writing" online archive (short static preamble).