Monthly Archives: March 2009

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Destined for greater things: a listicle

1. The apple that rolled off the passenger seat of my car and disappeared forever into the  interior.

2. The novels in my head, the whale in my dream, the dreams in my heart. The throw-up in my mouth.

3. The bottle of vodka, the carton of eggs, the ovaries of eggs, the pocket of money.

4. The gas underground, the diamonds underground, the music underground, these dance moves.

It’s wacky food day at One Star Watt

Wacky food #1: Spaghetti tacos (via a guy I met at a party)
Wacky food #2: Vodka gummy bears (via Neatorama)

The library is never open long enough – see you in 2010

Today we say goodbye to this year’s Virginia Festival of the Book. If someone had told me way back in the last century that I would be guest blogging for a major festival in 2008 and 2009, I would have said, “Blogging. That must be something you do from a flying car.” Turns out that this year’s festival coincided with the maiden flight of the world’s first car/airplane hybrid, which I don’t think was chance.

So we are living firmly in the future. And yet still reading books, a medium older than peanut butter, even while people all around us are predicting that these are end times for books. But to my surprise and delight, yesterday’s “What About My Book? Navigating the Industry Now” panel was optimistic. Although Ron Hogan of GalleyCat and Beatrice (and the author of The Stewardess Is Flying the Plane! American Films of the 1970s, which must have won some kind of title award) described the New York publishing industry as being “in freefall,” the panelists all agreed that a good book always has a future in the business. Authors might not receive the $5 million advances they’ve come to expect, but a commercially successful book will award them royalties above and beyond a small advance. According to the panelists, the recession has forced big publishing houses to stop overpaying for projects, or issuing “bad bank loans” to authors, which is a positive change to their business models, even if it might cost jobs in the short-term.

The big publishing houses are still going to rely too heavily on books like the latest celebrity memoir or fad diet book that don’t require massive promotional budgets (these things sell themselves), so mid-size houses like Algonquin that don’t need to answer to stockholders might be a better fit for new authors, even if they can’t provide the coveted six-figure advance. Does that make sense? Did I get that right? Is anyone else falling asleep? Ha – that’s actually a fun game. Let’s keep playing. Is anyone else eating her first ever box of Cracker Jacks, wondering what the big deal is? Is anyone else biting her nails to shreds? Is anyone else kind of liking Keith Gessen’s novel All the Sad Young Literary Men even though their friends gave it bad reviews? Is anyone else easily distracted?

Returning to this idea of the celebrity memoir being a surefire, no-brainer hit, I went to my last Festival of the Book panel this afternoon, entitled Francois Coty: The Perfume Magnate. Skipping over the variegated history of this French billionaire turned fascist who founded the Coty fragrance company, it interests me that the Coty company, although now out of the Coty family’s hands, is still hugely profitable because it sells celebrity perfumes almost exclusively. J.Lo, Sarah Jessica Parker, the Beckhams, and Celine Dion all have their own smells in the Coty catalogue. Even Tim McGraw and the Olsen twins are in on the action. Do people even buy perfume anymore if it’s not affiliated with some superstar? Mary-Kate and Ashley are the new rose and lilac. And are certain celebrities perceived to be better smelling to the general public? I bet Obama smells good. Can someone put that in a bottle? And then pour the bottle all over the back of my neck three times a day? What?

I sense that I’m losing you again. Let me conclude by bragging about the other fabulous thing I did as part of the Festival of the Book: scored a free ticket to the Authors’ Reception. Because I came by myself, I subjected numerous people to my mingling skills. Fortunately novelist Sarah Collins Honenberger was lovely as usual (you can find her blog here) and I met Robert Stilling, an English Ph.D candidate who co-authored What Should I Read Next?, a book of recommended reading from UVA professors. Then I decided the party was too grown-uppy so I sat down with a first-grade girl and got to talking about frogs until I lost track of time and security ushered us out of the Special Collections Library. I don’t know what it is with me and hanging out with little girls at literary soirees, but I seriously need to find some writer friends my own age.

The father’s daughter is not a doctor

If I am my father’s daughter and my father is a doctor, doesn’t that sort of make me his patient? But I can turn the tables by making him my blogging subject. He arrived late to the “Doctors Who Write” event sponsored by the Virginia Festival of the Book because he’d been busy at the hospital taking out a gallbladder. While we listened to the doctors read from their work, he crouched down in his chair to wipe something wet off his shoe. I knew that he had just come from surgery so I wrote “Was that blood on your shoe?” in my notebook and nudged him on the arm. He read my question and whispered, “Yes. I think it belonged to a possum.” My dad has a way of raising more questions than he answers.


Doctors who write: Walker Percy, William Carlos Williams, Atul Gawande, Oliver Sacks, Abraham Verghese, my dad after retirement. . . . They are all I can come up with off the top of my head (with some help from Google on spelling). The local literary talent at last night’s VABook event included two pediatricians, a radiologist, and a physician who teaches at UVA. I learned from Dr. Lynn Eckhert that Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to go to medical school, contracted gonnorrhea from an infected baby she was treating and lost an eyeball. I learned from Dr. Sharon Hostler what it felt like to diagnose a colleague with Munchhausen syndrome, a “disease” that causes the patient to fake disease, often with more brutal consequences than actual illness. I learned from a short story by Dr. Bruce Hillman how heartbreaking it might be for an elderly fly fisherman to catch a dying fish that has no fight left. And I learned that Dr. Daniel Becker’s overextended, sleep-deprived 4th-year medical school students, whom he encourages to write in their spare time, have “found the 55-word story.” (If I was a 4th-year medical student, my story would be three words: Valium, Xanax, Valium.)

Last night Dr. Hostler pointed out that in an exam room every patient has a story to tell and it’s the doctor’s job to listen. Hostler said, “We’re all patients” – even the doctors – and that, as patients, “We tell stories about why we’re sick.” Patients tell their narratives to authority figures in white lab coats who can finish the stories for them. Writers, I think, turn over their stories to the community in the same way. We’re dying to relay our symptoms, our thoughts and feelings, to a larger audience so someone will say, “Don’t worry! You’ll be fine! My sister had that same thing last year and she’s an astronaut now!” or – god forbid – “I’m sorry but we’re gonna have to operate.” Sometimes the esteemed audience is your future self. Sometimes it’s just a single other person. Occasionally that person is swinging around a dead possum in the middle of the night and you wonder if maybe he should be the one in treatment. 🙂

Breakfast think tank with Dan Ariely, croissants, door prizes

No, I did not win any of the door prizes. Particularly not the coveted free ice skating lessons that drew a murmur of excitement from the business breakfast crowd in the Omni’s conference room. We were there this morning to launch this year’s Virginia Festival of the Book with scrambled eggs and a presentation by Dan Ariely, the Duke/MIT professor and author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. After sympathetically noting the conflict of interest between a 7:30AM meeting on March 18 and an alcohol-fueled Irish holiday on March 17, Ariely gave a talk similar to this one in which he unraveled the mysteries of behavioral economics, aka the science behind buying a $4 cup of coffee or preferring specialty beer.

Last fall Fortune Magazine described Ariely as one of “10 new gurus you should know.” They like him because he applies statistical science to consumer behavior and helps companies save money on things like insurance claims and clothing returns. I like him because he’s one of the few men who realize that jeans qualify as business pants and because he’s a riveting speaker.

Whenever I encounter someone of above-normal intelligence, my first thought is always, “Let’s get this guy to Washington ASAP. He and Obama need to do lunch.” I imagine the first half of these meetings of the minds will be devoted to discussing how clever a matchmaker I am; the second half to policy decisions. And sure enough, Ariely has sage advice for the president. When asked about the outrageous AIG bonuses, Ariely said that he’s against capping bonuses in the future; instead, the CEOs should get nothing. They’re likely to do a better job for zero dollars than for $500,000. He said it’s like when you ask someone to help you move furniture for an hour. The friend volunteers out of the goodness of his heart, but the minute you offer to pay him some paltry amount like $5 (the equivalent of half a million for Mr. AIG), it’s demotivating. The person thinks, “My time is worth at least $20 an hour.” When market forces enter into the equation, the social incentive vanishes. Which is why I pay everybody in pizza. Speaking of which, if we paid the IRS in pizza instead of dollars, people would be more likely to cheat on their taxes. The further removed the commodity is from actual money, Ariely says, the more likely we are to justify fudging the numbers (or slices in this case).

By the way, I have been up learning interesting things for four hours, so I think that buys me precisely six hours of naptime and watching television on the internet.

Personal regrets from past book festivals

The following luminaries were in Charlottesville on March 24, 2004, for that year’s Virginia Festival of the Book: Michael Chabon, Edward P. Jones, Clyde Edgerton, and Michael Ondaatje. Did anyone who reads this blog see them in person? Did anyone buy them a drink, or if they don’t drink, a club soda? Did anyone gush nonsensically to Chabon about The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay or to Jones about The Known World like I would have done? Did anyone spray them with joyous spittle while welcoming them to Charlottesville’s Omni Hotel? And did any of you girls high-five Lois Lowry in 1997 and then tell her at length about your first menstrual periods?! I can only hope you did. Meanwhile I will try to make up for lost time when VABook 2009 starts tomorrow.

The Amazing Fact Generator is the new I Ching

Or Magic 8-Ball or what-have-you. This morning I asked Mental Floss’s Amazing Fact Generator, “Can I afford to go to graduate school in New York City?” It responded, “The University of Wyoming opened its doors before Wyoming became a state.”

Me: Clearly you mean that I should go even though I can’t afford it because soon after graduating with an MFA I will be a bestselling novelist?

AFG: “O’Hare airport is named after Al Capone’s laywer’s son, Lt. Cmdr. Butch O’Hare.”

Me: Now you’re just toying with me. That fact doesn’t even qualify as amazing.

AFG: “Since 2002, Henry Kissinger has avoided visiting both France and Spain—and for good reason. If he does, he might just be hauled into court. Apparently, Kissinger is still wanted for questioning in relation to French deaths resulting from the American-led war in Vietnam, and Spanish deaths that occurred during America’s military opposition in Chile.”

Me: This seems to insinuate that my credit card debt will preclude a student loan, and I resent you for mentioning it.

AFG: “In 1946, Ed Waldmire, Jr., revolutionized the meat-on-a-stick world when he debuted the Cozy Dog—the first corn dog on a stick. At first, he wanted to call his creation the ‘Crusty Cur,’ but his wife convinced him that people wouldn’t want to eat something described as ‘crusty.'”

Me: Assholes like you are what’s running the web into the ground.

Dereliction of literary duty

Not only did I publish zero books this year, thereby contributing nothing to the Virginia literary economy, but I have also been shirking my blogging duties for the Virginia Festival of the Book 2009. “What a punk!” says Michael Dirda. “She should be fired!” says Rita Dove. “I’m going to teach her a lesson!” says John Grisham. “I am totally okay with that!” says Wistar Murray.

Yesterday I finally assembled my “Book Bag” thanks to an ingenious tool on the VFB website that lets you create a personal calendar of book events. I always get a little trigger-happy with the Book Bag and end up cyber-committing to readings that conflict with work, meal-times, my personal taste, and each other. If the Virginia Festival of the Book had a VIP gift lounge like the Sundance Film Festival’s, I would be in there loading up on Ugg boots and snowboard bindings and Mariah Carey CDs just because they were free. But fortunately for my legions of fans, my Book Bag also contains events that I will 100% definitely attend (unless it’s raining or I’m sleepy). I present them here in chronological order:

Business Breakfast: Predictably Irrational with Dan Ariely (At the ungodly hour of 7:30AM! But there will be donuts. And I’m going to wear my only pair of business-style pants, loved by my husband because they give me the appearance of making a salary.)

Doctors Who Write (Dad, you’re my date. Heads-up. I am also expecting dinner and drinks afterward.)

What Are You Driving At? Cars, Culture, and an Impending Crisis (I’m hoping this event’s moderators will focus on fixing my muffler, which is in critical condition.)

Lifting Depression: Have Important Clues Been in Our Hands All Along? (Yes, if you substitute “Prozac” for “Clues” and “My” for “Our” and “Off And On Since 1994” for “All Along.” Then you’d have to go back and change “Have” to “Has” in order to get the verb to agree with the subject. I guess you might as well just start the sentence over.)

The Late-Night Story Slam (This event combines three of my favorite things: drinking, narrative, and heckling. I mean “audience participation.”)

So Many Books. . . The Pleasures of Reading (I’m looking for recommendations to replace Frank Herbert’s Dune, my book club’s latest pick, chosen after five bottles of wine.)

The Oceans (I would be there if I could be in multiple places at once – like the great white shark, my arch nemesis.)

Book Review Superstars (Does the fact that I don’t think the word “superstars” in this context is hyperbole make me a dork?)

Regular and Decaf: One Friend with Schizophrenia, One Friend with Bipolar (I’m not trying to belittle the importance of mental illness education, but where there’s coffee there’s usually pastries.)

Annual Book Fair at the Omni (Last year I was given a lot of promotional items, chiefly candy, and met an author who said that the black race would disappear within 20 years. I was so disturbed by this pronouncement that I spent an hour Googling him and his book – to no avail because after our encounter I’d promptly forgotten his name and the name of his book. I actually don’t think he was invited to the festival or to the Omni; he was just a man with a bizarre idea and a fold-out table.)

Agents Roundtable (It can’t hurt.)

Authors’ Reception (The party to end all parties! Except it only lasts until 8pm.)

Truth, Justice, and the American Way: An Evening with John Grisham and Stephen L. Carter (I will be there unless Grisham’s restraining order goes through.)

Virginia Arts of the Book Center: Open House (I will be there if I haven’t been up all night partying with Grisham and company. My buddy Kristin is moderating. I will try not to heckle her like the story slam people.)

Francois Coty: The Perfume Magnate (I will say “That’s funny because MY perfume is a BOY MAGNET” and we will all cackle in French accents.)

Rome 1960: The Olympics that Changed the World (But only because I’m a huge Jerry West fan. And because I coached the 1960 USA Rollerblading team.)

Equal opportunity bullying on the mean streets of Charlottesville

Yesterday I was jogging past the parking lot of the auto body shop, imagining all the different car accidents responsible for the wreckage, when I was approached by a pair of nine-year-old girls carrying Fiddlesticks. I’m not usually intimidated by nine-year-olds, but these girls decided to pick on me because they perceived me – wrongly! – to be old and daydreamy and significantly out of shape. One of the girls – the ringleader – gave me a nefarious look and started pretending her mini lacrosse stick was an electric guitar. She shouted all the chords at the top of her lungs, bullying me with her stupid, made-up song while we passed on the sidewalk. It’s like she was mocking my musicianship, except I was wearing running shoes and she was carrying sports equipment and I couldn’t ascertain any connection between what the three of us were doing and the way in which I was being taunted. But I felt like I was under attack and I was frightened, so I quickly jogged away. But the two girls took a shortcut across a field and intercepted me on the next block where they resumed aggressively playing their lacrosse stick guitar at me and laughing and I was forced to flee and hide out in a nearby CVS until I was sure they were gone.

But as clearly disturbing as this incident was, I’m sort of proud that young female, and not just male, bullies are now picking on the weak and defenseless in Charlottesville. As a young girl I never would have had the balls to confront an elegant, athletic, mature woman on the street and try to take her down a notch in some inexplicable fashion. I feel like feminism has come a long way in America when delinquent girls can be loud and rude and intrepid and gang up on strangers who have wandered into their neighborhoods in the name of physical fitness and who then go home and cry from fear and confusion after accepting the girls’ weird abuse, when that used to be the exclusive purview of troubled young men.

Keep up the good work, my young sisters! I fully support you in your equal opportunity bullying. My only suggestion would be to develop a more coherent system of attack so you don’t leave your victims feeling like they missed the point. But maybe you’re waging psychological warfare, in which case, wow.

Sickness. Couch. Links. Confusion.

I am a creature of routine occupying a body of convention living a life of habit. So when I got exciting news this week that seems to portend my world changing drastically this summer (holy crap I was admitted to an MFA program!), I immediately got the flu. It was my body’s way of saying, “Don’t go changing on me.” And not only am I receiving conflicting signals from my ambitious brain and my curmudgeonly immune system, I am further confused by the rejection letters slowly piling up from other MFA programs. Maybe I got into the one program that didn’t read my application. Oh well – sucks for them. I’m still going. A green light is a green light even when you can see a collision on the horizon. Thank you, dear benefactors!

In other news:

I give you the Halloween costume of the future! (The future being 2009.)

Tom Perotta talks Tracy Flick: “Especially with Palin, I don’t feel as if Tracy Flick was the best comparison. I just think people are made uncomfortable by ambitious women.”

Romantic comedies might be as harmful to the developing psyche as violent video games and cheese from a can.

Are poets held to lower standards today?

What war on drugs? I don’t remember fighting a war on drugs.

I’m the last person to be wrapped up in the WTF Blanket.

A new book asks why women get short shrift when it comes to writing the next Great American Novel. (Thanks to DD for the link.)

[Elaine Showalter] has insisted that themes central to women’s lives — marriage, motherhood, the tension between family and individual aspirations — constitute subject matter as “serious” and significant as traditionally masculine motifs like war and travel. Yet she rejects the preference of many feminist literary scholars for emphasizing “culture importance rather than aesthetic distinction” . . .

This website is to sociologists what PhotoshopDisasters is to designers.

Judith Warner writes about the pitfalls of mindfulness and Anna Fricke writes about not getting the baby drunk (both from NY Times blogs).

My alma mater is looking for a new mascot. Remember that artichokes, banana slugs, and “The Fighting Quaker” have already been done.

Jonathan Ames is taking on TV and James Franco is taking on books. And I live on the moon and moon rocks live on my couch!

I’m waiting for a quiet, sad moment to read this New Yorker piece about David Foster Wallace and his unfinished novel.

[Wallace’s] goal had been to show readers how to live a fulfilled, meaningful life. “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” he once said. Good writing should help readers to “become less alone inside.”

Garrison Keillor learns a lesson from an unread writer.

And thanks to Edward Upward, I have decided not to take a sabbatical after all. You go off to the woods for a year and it puts you under terrible pressure to write “Moby Dick” or something worthy of having had an entire year in which to write, and the longer you work at this masterpiece the shabbier it looks, the whale turns into a guppy, and at the end of the year you have torn up almost everything you wrote and you are filled with self-loathing and bitter regret.

I’m just happy more good looking people seem to be choosing the literary profession over acting, modeling, or working at Hooters. Makes readings feel more like the talent portion of a beauty contest. Vive les letters!