This season of American Idol is closing with Jessica Sanchez, the girl from Chula Vista whom the judges marked early on as the finalist, in position to win. It’s true she’s talented, but so are the others. What makes Sanchez a favorite with the judges is not that she’s the best singer, but rather that she presents the most complete commercial package: talented, technically excellent, glamorously sophisticated, and still super young. But. Six or seven weeks ago, the audience wanted to send Jessica home. This is interesting on many counts and I want take a moment to celebrate “America’s” rare antinomian mood and to think about what voters were saying.

What makes American Idol unusual and modern is its dependence on audience participation: the voters, not the judges and experts have the final say over who goes home. But this democratic-style selection is tempered by the judges weekly opportunity to shape the final results and when their attempts to manipulate the voting became too obvious, “America,” as the show calls its voters, rebelled.

I voted for the first time ever-this is the first season I watched regularly– for Elise Testone’s performance of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. She had everything that night: the voice, the edge, the energy, and the sparkling pants. She should wear those pants again. She should wear fun pants more often.

Elise Testone’s biggest problem was the judges. They were impatient to get on with the show and did their best to influence voters with comments that put her where they wanted her, in the bottom three. That she remained in the show despite landing bottom most weeks speaks to her voice, it’s raw emotion, its credibility. She is a singer-songwriter and musician more exciting and perhaps as talented as Philip Phillips–Her voice and onstage vulnerability moved me in ways Phillips never could. Though he is rather cute, I am not among the thousands of teen-age girls in love with him.

Elise didn’t get the credit Phillips does perhaps because she did not project a polished image, was not always put together in ways that made her shine, did not come blessed with the perfect body and perfect legs; she is not the complete commercial package that Sanchez is. Of interest in this discussion is big-voiced Skylar whose performances were confidently energetic, yes, but not heartbreaking the way Elise’s were. Skylar too is not a polished package, but she didn’t give the judges a chance to get to her: with her brash self confidence she stepped out boldly every time, sang her ass off, and the judges couldn’t help but hand it to her. Elise’s raw tenderness, which makes her so attractive as an artist, also makes her vulnerable to criticism and the judges comments week after week broke her. She became less sure in her choices, more half-hearted, as she finally admitted onstage, and this finally did her in.

The judges got their way, Jessica performed in this week’s finale against Phillip Phillips but there was no energy in this near final episode because there was really no contest: Comparing Jessica and Phillip, as Jennifer Lopez said, made no sense, while a finale of Joshua Ledet and Jessica Sanchez would have sizzled. In some ways this problem emerged weeks ago. The seven or so finalists on the stage these last weeks are all talented in different ways, and what the judges and audience were comparing were really apples and oranges, male and female, country and rock, soul and r&b. In other words, it doesn’t finally make much sense to choose one idol, but the show must go on to the end. For the sake of American Idol, for Freemantle Media, the corporation. For the judges. Before the season’s over, you might then ask who is the real idol worshipper? Not “America”, it would seem.

Transparency and Democracy: What readers really want

To listen to this latest column for WAMC’s BookShow, click here.

“The Death of the Reader”

Another piece for WAMC’s Book Show. To listen click here.

Auto-Incorrect English

Here’s the link to my most recent WAMC essay, titled “Auto-Incorrect English:” CLICK HERE

Judging Books by their… Authors

Listen to this short essay which aired on WAMC’s (NPR) Book Show on Dec 1, 2010, “Judging Books by their…Authors,”.

Bullying the Novel

In academia, courses in Women’s Literature qualify as fulfillment of a requirement that we teach literature by minorities that have been under-represented.  Of course women are hardly a minority since we make up more than half the human population, but we have been and are under-represented both in academia and elsewhere.  The literary media, hiding behind its ethic of independence, is especially tight-lipped about what it covers and why.  The recent raves in The NY Times and elsewhere of Jonathan Franzen’s largely domestic novel Freedom and its placement on front and cover pages everywhere has created a stir about the inequality in the media’s coverage of women’s writing.  As a result some useful and damning statistics have emerged.

No one who reads and writes can honestly doubt that the literary media is partial to work by men, and that this is indeed a story of injustice and inequality enabled by patriarchal stereotypes often excused as an unconscious bias.  Unconsciousness on this subject this late in our history is unconscionable, and therefore unforgivable.  But this conversation about gender inequality obscures the more important one we should be having if we care about the novel as a living form.

As it happens, I am teaching a Major Author’s course on Virginia Woolf this semester and my students and I read “Modern Novels,” her essay about what makes a novel great.  For contrast, we also read the recent NY Times review of Freedom in which the reviewer rejoices because this work “gather[s] up every fresh datum of our shared millennial life,” “abound[s] in journalistic touches,” “teem[s] with information,” and “data flow[s] through the arteries of narrative,” as if this kind of sweep guarantees greatness.

Woolf would say: “He is a materialist…taking upon his shoulders the work that ought to have been discharged by Government officials, and in the plethora of his ideas and facts scarcely having leisure to realize…the crudity and coarseness of his human beings. Yet what more damaging criticism can there be both of his heaven and of his earth than that they are to be inhabited here and hereafter by his Joans and Peters?”

Or, I might add, Franzen’s Pattys and Walters, the characters that the NY Times reviewer goes on to describe with surprising approbation as “caricatures,” that finally emerge “misshapen and lopsided,” not “rounded characters, in the awful phrase.”  The phrase, by the way, is from E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, and you and I might ask when the novelistic call for full or round characterization has turned “awful”?  And since when is an inserted diary written for therapeutic purposes an “ingenious device” in literature?  Throughout the review, you can hear the heavy breathing that such heavy lifting brings forth.  The point of this detailing is to bring us back to the main question: What makes a novel great?  And what makes a novelist great?  The Russians, Woolf writes, interested as they were in “the dark region of psychology,” in the soul and heart, got at the essence rather than the externals of life.  “No one but a modern, perhaps no one but a Russian, would have felt the interest of the situation…one of a shipload of ill Russian soldiers dies and is taken away; the talk goes on among the others for a time; until Gusev himself dies and, looking like a carrot or a radish, is thrown overboard.”   Woolf is describing the plot of Chekhov’s Gusev, which is interested in a mere passing moment.  Chekhov places the emphasis on evanescence, an image; we learn nothing about the ship itself, are given no details about the soldiers’ lives, nothing about Gusev, but the story haunts the reader with an experience that has more life in it than many a thousand-page doorstop filled with things, hard objects with firm outlines, easy certainties, but with none of the wavering, surrealism of our inner lives, our essence.

You might well ask why this sense of urgency, why do we have to choose between realism and essence?  At a time when the novel is threatened on all sides, when the majority of readers has come to expect from fiction only escapist entertainment, offering them more of what they know, the realist materialism of the materialist culture they already live in, gives them every reason to turn around and ask what does fiction tell me that I don’t already know.

Woolf’s conclusion is that fiction asks of us to “honor and love her” by “break[ing] and bully[ing] her…for so her youth is perpetually renewed and her sovereignty assured.”  Loving and honoring the novel means pushing and stretching the envelope to force the form to new places, while promoting conventional work that merely offers a facile though sometime eloquent caricature of our very real, materialistic lives most certainly is not.

The question must be asked, and my students and I asked it:  Do these reviewers of fiction truly love the novel, or are they more comfortable with hard facts, hence with realism rather than the profound uncertainties of life?  We looked up Sam Tanenahaus. Wikipedia informed us that he is an American historian, biographer, journalist, and though he studied literature, his work has been in non-fiction, writing for The New Republic, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and now The NY Times.  We think the answer is rather clear, and it therefore comes as no surprise that review pages for fiction keep getting cut in favor of non-fiction, and the fiction that gets top placement is often work that does less than it should to help the novel live and breathe.

The Metaphysical Matters

When Leonard Nimoy playing Spock separated the middle and ring fingers of his hand in what became his signature Vulcan greeting, he was taking up an ancient Jewish ceremonial ritual in which the priests (Kohanim in Hebrew) blessed the nation. Not everyone has the agility to perform this finger trick. Zachary Quinto, who played the role of young Spock in the 2009 film Star Trek had to resort to rubber bands, which Trekkies argued proved that he was not a true Vulcan and didn’t deserve the role.

In contemporary synagogues, when there is a qualified priest—a direct patrilineal descendent from the tribe of Aharon—he performs this ritual while the members of the congregation cover their eyes and their children’s eyes to protect them from what are said to be blinding magical powers this finger trick conjures. I couldn’t have been the only child who peeked and survived. My friends and I practiced the finger tricks and concluded that those who could were daughters and sons of priests. I, granddaughter of a priest, can easily separate the middle and ring fingers of both my hands.

My grandfather, who is said to have had written proof of priesthood, blessed the members of the renowned Breslover synagogue in Jerusalem every Sabbath and holiday. On Friday nights, after candle lighting, he also blessed all his grandchildren (there are a lot of us) who lived within walking distance. When I moved with my family to America, opportunities for his blessings diminished, a loss of biblical dimensions for a child raised on the stories of Isaac and Ishmael, of Jacob and Esau, who for a bowl of pottage sold his birthright, which was his right to the first-born’s blessing.

Perhaps to make up for this loss, my father provided us with alternate opportunities: Family trips took us to the homes of significant scholars and grand rabbis and the visits would end with each of us receiving blessings. And every September, for the Jewish New Year, my father blesses each of us. When I’m unable to be there in person, he offers the blessing over phone lines and though his voice and the whispered words of the prayer— May you be as the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah—convey the heat of his passion, I have to imagine his warm hands on my head.

The notion that one needs more than the genetic gifts and abilities one is born with can be off-putting. It means that persistence and hard work aren’t enough. It means that complete independence is a disadvantage. It might require that you stay in the good graces of the patriarch, whose hovering hands can hold sway over your future. Most startlingly, it informs you that the metaphysical matters.

Of course respect for magic, superstition, miracles, and the extraordinary are all part of religious life and came to me as a birthright practically. So that if more than one thing goes wrong on a given day, if disaster strikes too often, I can’t help but give myself up to an accounting of my sins, or think of Job, hapless pawn in God’s plan. Though in modern life we might call such behavior paranoid, a persecution complex, I’m not entirely ungrateful for my built-in overinvestment in meaning. Some days I might go so far as to say that my early indoctrination was a sort of blessing. It’s taught me how to read literature, alert to pattern. It’s taught me that humans are endowed with imagination as well as intellect for a purpose, because we are meant to rely on both. In our attempt to grow beyond superstition, in our enlightened embrace of the rational, we’ve abandoned knowledge of the extraordinary, the hidden, the transcendent, blessings that make for human excellence.

American Muslims Fear 9/11 Anniversary

It’s not unusual for a bad economy with no jobs to bring out the worst in people, but taking advantage of this fearful mood by fanning the flames of racism and xenophobia is shameful and dangerous. But this is precisely what the politically-motivated Republican party has engaged in. It might be useful to remember that Hitler got himself elected by ranting about the failings of the Weimar Republic and jeering at the “Liberals” who ran it. Sound familiar? Read More.

Chiasmus: A short short published in Epoch

In lieu of this month’s column, here is the full text of Chiasmus, a short short published in Epoch’s December issue. Enjoy.


At first only Mrs. James noticed: Robbie’s style had changed. His shrug, or perhaps it was the way he used his hands—where before he had moved with the efficient swing and stride of an athlete, with nothing extraneous, he was slower now and newly expressive. Home after surgery and weeks of therapy, Robbie picked up the book that Ritchie had been reading—Christopher Ricks on Bob Dylan—discussed Ricks’s gloss on Dylan’s lyrics, and added his own. When Robbie wasn’t reading, he worked out. He was determined to get back in the game the following season, and he started by putting himself through his rehabilitation exercises every day, sometimes twice a day, though it was painful.
Mrs. James encouraged him. She made energy shakes and purchased liquids infused with electrolytes. When he was well enough to make his way down to the basement to his bench, he wanted to start lifting weights again; he wanted, he said, to regain the upper body strength necessary for lacrosse, though his therapist warned him to go easy because his newly-transplanted organs were still settling in, ribs, muscles and ligaments still healing. You’re young, she said, and you were lucky, you couldn’t have had a closer match, but your connective tissues are new and still forming. If suddenly it feels like glass breaking, ease up right away.
One day, Mrs. James heard the rat-a-tat-tat of drums, and when she went downstairs, she found Robbie on Ritchie’s drums.
“Thought I’d give them a workout,” he explained, “so they don’t gather dust. Watch.” He struck the cymbals and a hundred dust motes floated white in the sunlit air.
Mrs. James watched the lonely motes settle, dust to dust, and listened to Robbie find his rhythm, fumbling at first, then confident enough to add a secondary off-beat thump. He kept this going a while, and soon he attempted a third track and kept it up, and soon drumming was part of his daily routine and he was going downstairs to give Ritchie’s drums a workout even on off days, when his muscles were repairing.
He’s coming through beautifully, the doctors said.
Traumatic experience can, in the best cases, set off a period of intellectual growth, the occupational therapist said when Mrs. James mentioned Robbie’s new interests.
She was anxious about Robbie’s state of mind, about the difficulty of finding himself alive while his brother was not. He didn’t talk about it and she didn’t want to press. Fortunately, he had not been driving. In this, at least, God had been merciful. Though it was an accident, it would have been hard for Robbie to live with the knowledge that he had killed Ritchie, and it would have been difficult knowing that the perpetrator had survived. Still this tragedy was impossible to understand, impossible to accept, and most days, halfway through the day, Mrs. James felt her head grow too warm and inside shells shattered, became shells again, which shattered, which became shells, which shattered which became which shattered which—
until she swallowed a sedative.
Ritchie wasn’t, had never been, a wild driver. He had never been a boy easily pushed toward daredevilry, had never performed stunts on demand, not even as a toddler. Though he had walked from bed to bed and wall to wall, arms akimbo for balance, though Mrs. James had seen him perform it in the morning and knew he could, he refused to show Poppa. Baby Ritchie walked only when and where he wanted to. And grown-up Ritchie impressed, when he wanted to impress, suddenly, so that they didn’t see it coming, so that by the time he let them in on a newly learned skill, he’d perfected the act. He’d surprised them all with his musical ability. They’d had no idea that he was practicing the drums at school until one day he invited them to a performance, and hearing him play, Mr. James, who years ago had played the banjo in a traveling bluegrass band, was moved to go online and bid on an awesome set of Double-Helix drums.
Now the band was looking for a drummer to take Ritchie’s place, they posted ads, and without saying anything to anyone, Robbie recorded and mailed a demo tape.
“The band will be rehearsing downstairs today,” Robbie announced one morning at breakfast, as if he were Ritchie informing his mother in advance, as they’d long ago agreed, so that Mrs. James could schedule errands or a movie or coffee with friends for that cacophonous afternoon. Mr. and Mrs. James exchanged glances and, then, seeing Robbie pour himself a bowl of Cheerios and top it off with raisins, as if he’d never disliked Cheerios with raisins, Mrs. James started out of her seat, propelled herself out of the room, out of her home—out of her mind, she felt—and Mr. James had to coax her inside and back to bed.
For his first public performance, Robbie needed black pants and a white shirt, the band’s uniform, and he borrowed Ritchie’s. After which, he started wearing Ritchie’s school hoodie, and Ritchie’s jacket, and Ritchie’s favorite flannel shirt, and soon Ritchie’s closet became Robbie’s second wardrobe, and Mrs. James understood that she wouldn’t have the dreaded task of clearing out Ritchie’s things, though she also wanted or needed it.
In September, when the lacrosse season started again, Robbie looked at the schedule and realized that he couldn’t participate in the band’s rehearsals and performances as well as in lacrosse practice and games. He didn’t debate long. After weeks of weight training and body conditioning, he gave up lacrosse for the drums. At first he continued showing interest in his former team’s scores and wins, and he high-fived his former teammates, but it was the band that came to the house for rehearsals, and it was with the band he spent his free time, so that Ritchie’s old best friends became Robbie’s new friends. But the way he was with these new friends, Mrs. James noted, was unnatural. Robbie had always been self-assured in his friendships, carefree and confident and largely unconcerned; now he showed a tentative, fragile quality. He’s trying too hard, she thought. She watched him and became convinced that he was trying to fill Ritchie’s shoes, he was trying to be Ritchie.
She worried that it was somehow her fault, that she had favored Ritchie over Robbie, rousing jealousy unthinkingly. She remembered that Ritchie had called Robbie an illiterate idiot at least once, and tone deaf too, but if they were sometimes jealous brothers, they were also often playful.
At the end of hard days came harder nights, when Mrs. James lay awake. One night, she asked herself if, given the option, she would have chosen Ritchie over Robbie. But no, it wasn’t true; she’d loved them equally, and for their very differences: Ritchie for his quiet subtlety and imaginative sensitivity, Robbie for his obtuse ease, taking life always easily. She’d loved well, loved equally, and yet. Between reality and perception floats the cloud of unknowing. She thought she heard Ritchie, or was it Robbie’s voice, reciting in her ear, a lyric without its music, with only the treble of voice, “I hurt easy, I just don’t show it/ You can hurt someone and not even know it.” The voice was Robbie’s, but the words belonged to Ritchie. She was blind and groping. She was blind biblical Isaac groping to identify which son. She no longer knew anything. She’d given life to two sons, twins. They’d arrived equally blessed, with enough in the world for both. And she had sent them into this world, to partake of it, and only one had returned, blessedness damaged.
For the anniversary of the accident, when Robbie was back in school and walking and eating and breathing as well as almost anyone, Mrs. James ordered Ritchie’s headstone etched with lines that Robbie had selected from Dylan’s Forever Young, and family and friends gathered for the long-delayed memorial. The band played Mr. Tambourine Man, and Robbie spoke eloquently, remembering characteristic moments with Ritchie, and seeing him up there, hearing him speak and read, Mrs. James understood that she had been mourning for Ritchie though it was Robbie they’d lost.

ON THE ROAD: in Amsterdam

On The Road: After airport closings on Sunday and Monday morning, Schipol re-opened, and my flight remained on schedule, and was indeed on time and entirely, pleasantly uneventful. I arrived Tuesday morning and found my wonderfully diligent publicist Marianna (actually, she found me) waiting. Yes, in the Netherlands, in the 21st century, friends and family still meet you at the airport.

Checked in at the lovely Hotel Ambassade, where I’ve stayed for almost every visit, and reviewed my schedule with Marianne. I had the entire morning and early afternoon off for rest. I stepped out on my little balcony, with its view of the canal and the steeply pitched red-tile roofs across the way, and watched passer-by on bicycles. I would live in Amsterdam just for the bicycles. Then went to pour my bath in my newly-renovated sparkling-clean European white bathroom. After which I slept for the precisely-prescribed ideal half hour (my iphone alarm woke me), and though desperate for more sleep, I forced myself out the door to meet Ilonka Leenheer, friend, fashion scout, and more, for a late lunch and shopping. We had a leisurely lunch on Wolvenstraat at a fashionable place fashionably without a name, drank twee koffie veerkeerd, exchanged gifties (a lovely necklace with double stars for me; Smartwool cushy ankle socks for her), then on to Marimekko and Rika. That woke me. I got back to the hotel in time for two afternoon interviews, and a photo session. For once, the photographer arrived prepared with a reflector and light, so the photos should be better than past NL photos.

Dinner that evening was at Flo, a French bistro that’s somehow related to La Coupole in Paris, where I had my very first raw oysters about, oh, a hundred years ago. So I started with a half dozen cold water oysters and cold white wine: yummmmm. For my entrée, spicy beef carpaccio. I wished I weren’t too tired to finish it. It was delectable dining in excellent company: My smart and lovely publisher, Maaike le Noble, whom I’d met in NYC in the winter—a pleasure to see her again; Marianne, my wonderful publicist; and Thijs, the non-fiction editor at Meulenhoff.

The next morning, I took the Haarlem-line train Zandvoort aan Zee (the sea), to meet Sander Knol, the managing director of Meulenhoff, for our ride through the dunes to the beach. After an espresso at the upstairs bar at the barn (fun to have a bar at the barn!), we were off: Sander, Marlise (Sander’s wife) and I, in the rear, led by Manege Ruckert, the owner and trainer at the barn. It was a lovely sunny day, with a good breeze. I was on 14-year old Shumi, a forward-going 15- or so hand horse, so shorter (and with a shorter stride) than Homère. We walked, trotted, cantered–no flying changes despite changes of bend on the narrow paths between dunes. We opened swinging gates and got the horses through them, with only one objection. Shumi was fine with it. We crossed a highway. We cantered on the beach. Shumi got a little too excited. We turned the horses into the water, paused for pics, then trotted most of the way back. And we all stayed on! 22 kilometers (about 18 miles) total. We were running late, but with Sander driving, I had just enough time for a shower, change of clothes, and onward for drinks at the publishing house with friends and guests and authors of Meulenhoff. What a fun way to close a fun day: the house is on the canal at Herengracht, and sipping cold wine in the lovely lobby, and in the sun on the front steps is glorious. Met old friends, met new friends, authors. Signed books. And Maaike spoke lovingly, inspiringly. And then dinner with my best Dutch girlfriends: Nanda van den Berg, my first NL editor, and Ilonka Leenheer, editor at Elle. We went to George, a new trendy spot, where we met other trendsters. And finally ended at Ilonka’s place, for tea and wine and some cuddling with Holly, her sweet and sometime jealous kittykat. She wanted her Mom to herself, so she scratched my hand! But I also got a high-tech band-aid for the blister (the reins) I’d developed, having forgotten to pack gloves.

Back to back interviews the next day: an hour each. As always, I talk faster at end of day. Lunched with Marianne: White asparagus with hollandaise sauce, ham and a poached egg—mmmmm. I think I could eat this every day and not get bored. Finished the day with another photo session, then a quick stop at Rika to purchase one of the five items under consideration: the renowned Rika star scarf: grey with large pink stars. Wore it the next day (good airplane wrap) and the next and the next.

Dinner at BIHP (Be Hip?) with my fine translator, Sjaak de Jong, with Bart Krammer, fiction editor and authors’ friend!, and the lovely Nina, assistant to Marianne. I had trout, spinach and, significantly, fries with mayonnaise. Apres dinner, Bart, Ilonka and I stopped for a quick g&t at De Pels, a local popular neighborhood bar, where it turns out the owner knows me or my work. ☺

In the morning, a morning chat with Sander, then to Schipol, for a long long journey home (USA), and home (Upper West Side) and home (Ancramdale, NY) to join Steve and Emma (my little family) for the weekend and some much needed R&R.

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