Archive for January, 2013

Maureen Corrigan and I Are Officially Over

Monday, January 28th, 2013

Did you hear her review of George Saunders’ new collection a couple of weeks ago? In which she refers to the NYTimes Magazine cover piece? And reveals that until she saw it, she HAD NEVER HEARD OF HIM?

I mean, it’s one thing if you’re a regular Sheronda who doesn’t, you know, review books for a living. But . . . what the freakin’ freak?

I knew about Saunders, and began reading his magnificent work, in 1997. Sure, I was at an MFA program in fiction writing, and I heard about it from another fiction writer. But Corrigan teaches English at Georgetown. Presumably, she is surrounded by people who read. How is it possible that they are not talking about Saunders?

And anyway, even if the entire community of Georgetown has decided to stay mum on the genius of Saunders, he’s been publishing in The New Yorker for at least a few years now. Yes, you could argue that New Yorker fiction ain’t what it used to be—that it is, in fact, disappointing about 9/10th’s of the time—but if you are reviewing books, you have got to be reading it.

I’ve never been fond of Corrigan’s reviews, but I at least assumed that she was staying on top of the field. Now, ugh.

Terry! Hire someone else! At least in addition to Maureen!


Sunday, January 13th, 2013

There is only one television show that John will watch, and that show is Top Chef. Happily, I love it, and still more happily, we’ve taken to watching it in bed, usually while we eat dinner. HOLD ME BACK SUCH ABSOLUTE FUN.

Recently we finished the latest season of Top Chef: Masters, which is our favorite iteration of the franchise, suffused as it tends to be with good will. We’d been watching it in spurts over about half a year, since we depend on my angelic friend Vicky to make and mail us DVDs. (I owe you dinner, Vicky. Again.) So as we finished up the finale, it was particularly gratifying to see that my prediction of the winner had been correct.

Thing is, though: I knew it would be. And here’s why. Twice in 2012, a totally new thing happened to me: sudden, intense intuition. This is not intuition as I normally experience it, in which I purposefully query my deeper self for information or in which I allow queried information to rise to the top of my consciousness over time. No, this was an event—an unbidden, quite physical experience in which I was overcome with a piece of information I didn’t even know I was soliciting.

Here’s what happened. The first time, we were watching They Came To Play, a sweet documentary about the Van Cliburn amateur piano competition in Texas. I know very little about concert-level piano, so it was basically impossible to gauge the quality of the playing. I knew whom I wanted to win—the passionate Russian woman from Oakland (!) whose performance was the most emotionally present of the lot—but she was eliminated in a semi-final round. When it was down to the 5 finalists, I didn’t have a clue.

And then, suddenly, as one of the finalists was performing, I was overcome with a rush of heat—almost a queasiness—that was as fleeting as it was transformative. “This is the guy,” I said to John. “He’s going to win.” And he did.

The same thing happened a few episodes into Top Chef. When the chef who ultimately won was onscreen, doing nothing particularly of note, I got the same feeling—the rush of heat, the slight nausea, and the knowledge that he would win.

I want to be clear: This is not guessing. Often when I’m watching a competition, I make a guess about the winner based on a number of factors, including (if it’s reality TV), how the participants are being edited. Or if it’s a narrative movie/play, I have guesses about how the plot will go, but I’m very aware that I don’t actually know. With these flashes of intuition, I didn’t have a choice (or even, really, a thought). The information had simply been transmitted to me.

If you’re wondering, as I’ve been, whether this new flavor of intuition will strike in an area other than televised competitions, I’m pleased to report that it happened again last night, after listening to an Isabel Allende story on Selected Shorts. The story was called “Two Words,” and while the events of the story hinge on the words of the title, they’re never revealed. Immediately after listening, I pondered a bit and then let the question go. Then, as I was falling asleep, I knew what the words were.*

Of course, in this case, I have no way to check out whether I’m right. And that’s something I wonder: Could this type of intuition be wrong? I once read a book about certainty which makes the very important point that it does not equate with correctness. But what about this particular type of certainty, this deeply intuitive rush of knowledge?

I’ll keep track, of course, of my own. And if it fails me, I’ll let you know.

*This is the ideal-for-insight scenario that Jonah Lehrer describes inĀ Imagine (the book has been discredited, I know, but it can’t all be wrong)—i.e., asking a conscious question and then moving on to something else while your subconscious goes to work.

Holiday Reading

Friday, January 4th, 2013

Nellies, I’m back!

Unfortunately, copious work deadlines are dogging me, so I don’t have time for a full-length check-in. I’ll merely attempt to report, however briefly, on my holiday reading:

1) My Heart Is an Idiot, by Davy Rothbart. Great title, huh? And a surprisingly lovely book. I expected it to be light and entertaining, given Rothbart’s contributions on This American Life, but it’s deeper than that. It’s also movingly open-hearted. There’s a very short essay about a man who makes good on his lifelong dream to see the Grand Canyon that moved me to tears. In fact, it’s more like a prayer than an essay—and a very funny one at that.

Rothbart is also appealingly contemplative about his love life, even as it occasionally veers into the unsavory. And he’s great with a sentence. I had no idea. Write more things, Davy!

2) Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. Yeah, everybody and her granddaughter is reading this, so it’s not like the Internet is thirsting for more opinions. I’ll say simply that I can see why (in addition to Oprah’s having blessed it) it’s so popular. Even more than Rothbart, Strayed is raw on the page, and her book has a redemptive arc that his doesn’t. There are also the additional elements of danger and suspense, although those weren’t my main interest.

Bottom line: immensely enjoyable. As a writer, Strayed invites intense connection, so that no matter how different the details, her readers tend to identify with her. I found it easy to do the same.

3) Farther Away, by Jonathan Franzen. The previous two books are remarkable for their open-heartedness and vulnerability. This book? Isn’t. In fact, I’d say it’s Franzen’s most defended work yet—which is saying a lot, given his track record. Oh, Jonathan. Why didn’t your editor alert you to the fact that you come across as a persnickety, finger-wagging schoolmarm who blames other people for your personal pain?


I do love me a schoolmarm, usually. I kind of am one. But in this book, Franzen announces, among other things, that 1) He will not read your book if you commit a certain grammatical error (which is really a stylistic choice) even once, and 2) That he feels personally invaded and violated when he hears people saying “I love you” into their cell phones. He rattles on for some pages about privacy and personal space and the rights of man blah blah blah, only to finally come to the truth, aaaaall the way at the end of the essay, about his personal history with that phrase—i.e., the ways in which his mother had used it to manipulate him. Ah, so. There we have the heart of the matter, the actual truth. Why didn’t his editor delete the rationalization and invite him to get to the point?

Back to the salt mines, Nellies.