Idle Notions and Unexpected Realities: Movie Tie-Ins at the Institute Library

In November, 2012, someone who knows me very, very well suggested that Best Video out in Hamden should merge somehow with the Institute Library in New Haven. "You could do some great stuff together," I was told. "Think of the programming potential." "You're right," I said. "That's a really interesting idea, especially because the sort of people who love the Library are basically likely to be the same sort of people who love Best Video." I know this demographic, having served on the board of the Institute Library for the last seven, nearly eight, years, and as a person who worked for Hank, when Best Video had a store in the old Yale Co-op on Broadway.

And now: http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/a_gala_for_the_film_reels/

Back in 2012, encouraged by the idle conversation described above, I sent an email to a few people saying, "Hey, what if?" and heard crickets. One person said, basically, "Cute idea, but..." and nothing else. But now here it has come to pass that the Best Video Film and Cultural Center exists, with the assistance of the Institute Library, which is acting as a kind of fiscal sponsor for the enterprise.  Basically, the function that the Library now serves for the New Haven Review, it's now serving for the BVFCC -- ok, there are probably some differences, but that's my sloppy shorthand for it. I leave the details to the lawyers; what I'm thinking about, and celebrating, is my sense that the dreams of 2012 can come true.

The things that the Institute Library is, physically -- a time capsule, a museum of cultural oddities, a little tiny piece of history -- Best Video has always had in its movie collection. Best Video's stock is all over the place in terms of genre and time period, but to me, Best Video was the place where I could find all the old movies I'd heard of but never had a chance to see. When I worked for Hank, which was a thousand years ago, there were a lot of hours when I was, frankly, alone in the store with no customers, and I could play whatever movie I wanted as long as it wasn't obviously going to offend anyone who came by. So I watched a lot of movies from the 1930s and '40s and '50s (in addition to the new releases of the 1980s, which were a mixed bag, frankly). Hank had VHS tapes of just about everything in the world, or at least it felt that way; and if I was reading a book that made passing reference to some old Barbara Stanwyck flick, which in those days I often was -- well, all I had to do was pull it from the cabinet. Decades later, when I first walked up into the Institute Library, I swear to God I thought it was the set of a movie I'd watched on one of those days when I was just monitoring paperwork and waiting for the late afternoon rush.

The Institute Library is in color (mostly this kind of odd shade of green), but it goes with those old black and white movies I associate so strongly with Best Video. I am ardently hoping that movie and music lovers will rally around the BVFCC and keep Hank's establishment alive. But what I really want is a movie series at the Institute Library. I mean, for years I have been dreaming about this. I want a screening of "Auntie Mame" at the Institute Library. "The Thin Man." "The Maltese Falcon." "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit." It feels like, after years of talking about it idly, this may come to pass. There is no popcorn machine at the Institute Library, and there probably will never be, but as God is my witness, this engagement is wonderful news for Best Video, for the Library, and for everyone around here.

Winter Party 2015: New Haven Review at the Institute Library

New Haven Review Subscription Party 2015

Our annual winter party approaches -- and we're hoping to see you at the Institute Library, so save the date:

Saturday, February 7, 2015

7:00 PM to 9:00 PM

The Institute Library

847 Chapel Street

New Haven, CT 06510

Order Tickets!

There will be food, drink, story reading, music, and lots of interesting folks who love all things literary.

Three kinds of tickets are available:

$20, includes with a year-long subscription to the New Haven Review

$25, includes an annual Apprentice membership to the Institute Library


$40, includes both a year-long subscription to the New Haven Review and an annual library Apprentice membership

This event sells out quickly, so please buy your tickets online here or in-person at the library today.

See you then!

Team New Haven Review

The Anchor.

You can make a lot of observations, none very happy, about the abrupt closing of the Anchor, the best dive bar that I ever knew in New Haven. You can complain about how abruptly it closed, how the landlords are jerks for making this happen. You can mourn the dead. You can also hope that it isn't really over. The space is still the Anchor, as I type this: the sign is not lit, but it is still hanging. The blue banquettes are still there. The jukebox, oh, the jukebox, is still there. But it doesn't look good.

Last night, Sunday, January 4th, almost everyone I knew in New Haven was in a sharply pained state as the news got around that the 4th would be the Anchor's last night of operation. I myself changed my plans for  the night so that I could get there for one last drink. I'd planned to feed my daughter dinner and put her to bed in her flannel owl pajamas, read her a bedtime story, maybe watch a movie with my husband. But I said to him, "I will read the bedtime story and then I'm going downtown." He  said, "I'll do bedtime. Just go." So I went downtown. It was raining. I left the house at 8.24 and arrived at 8.57 to find the Anchor's doors locked. I stood there confused. Locked? It wasn't even nine o'clock. The bells were ringing on the Green just then. A reporter stood at the door, talking to some girls in their twenties who smiled and told him how much they loved the place. "I led Bible study groups here," one of them said.

I remembered a lot of nights at the Anchor, and quite a few afternoons. I wondered if I should just turn around and go home. I said to my friend M., who was standing there almost teary-eyed, "I don't know what to do," and I listened to the others standing around: "Should we go to Rudy's? Three Sheets?" It was morbid to talk about going to another bar, under the circumstances, but at the same time, turning around and going home seemed unthinkable.

M. and I went to Cafe 9, where a band was playing and the saxophone was too loud. We could barely hear each other when we spoke. One of the things I loved about the Anchor was that you could have a real conversation there. Personally, I used to go and bring a book with me and read while I drank. The Anchor was a gross place, and it was a beautiful place, and it was, for a lot of people, an essential third place.

When Mark Oppenheimer -- the founder of the New Haven Review -- came back to New Haven to take over the job of editing the New Haven Advocate, he and I crossed paths his first week on the job. We were, you could say, acquainted with one another, tenuously. It seemed clear (to me; I can't speak for him) that we were going to be in each other's lives, at least for a while, and that we should get to know each other a little better. I suggested we have a drink. The obvious place to go was the Anchor.

I hope it can be resuscitated, because if it cannot be, I'm really not sure I can find a replacement. There is no other obvious choice, not for me.

On Reading, Again, and Again, to a Child

It's obvious to me that very small children -- babies, toddlers -- want to be read the same book over and over again. That's how they're absorbing the book, and the letters, and learning how to read, and how to understand that there's this thing called "the written word." Of course I wearied of reading The Little Fur Family and I am a Bunny and Corduroy (yes, even Corduroy) to my daughter. But I did it anyway, because it was important in a larger sense, and because, in a more immediate sense, it was what she wanted at bedtime. She's now six and a half years old, and there is no greater punishment I can threaten than "No bedtime story!" She will snap to attention, exhibit good behavior, brush teeth with military precision, if I even hint that she'll not be read to at bedtime otherwise. I've been observing her reading patterns: she's now old enough to read to herself, and she does read to herself all the time, often going back to favorite picture books, but also frequently just pulling some random thing off the shelf that it happens we've never looked at before. So she's shuttling back and forth between "things I know are in my wheelhouse" and "things that I don't know what's in there, but let's find out." Which I think is dandy. It makes sense to me.

What surprises me, though -- and I'm not sure why, but it does -- is that now and then she will ask for us to read to her, a second, third, or fourth time, a really long book that we have to read in installments. We don't do this frequently, but once in a while, I will decide that bedtime will be a chapter of a much larger work. We've read The Cricket in Times Square this way, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, and some of the All-of-a-Kind-Family books. We've read James and the Giant Peach and we've read Betsy-Tacy books. These aren't merely bedtime stories: they're reading projects. You can only read so much aloud in one night. Some books take weeks to get through, not because the chapters are necessarily so long, but because the effort of reading them is so great: it is, for reasons I don't really understand, harder to read Roald Dahl aloud than Betty MacDonald.

While all of these books have illustrations, the draw is not the pictures, it's the story, pure and simple; the illustrations are really just cherries on top of the sundae. What my daughter does when I read these books to her is different from what she does when I read her a picture book. A picture book, she wants to sit up in bed and snuggle against me and be able to see the pictures. With the longer books, even though there are pictures, and I can show them to her, she tends to not care very much, and burrows into her blankets and just listens to my voice as I read. Occasionally, I'll get to a picture I particularly like, and I'll say, "hey, look at this, doesn't her hair look so pretty here?" and she often won't even make the effort to look where I'm pointing.

We'll finish the book, eventually, and months will go by, and then -- as happened two nights ago -- she'll say, "Can we hear that again?" And I will inevitably -- why? -- be surprised, and pull down James or Cricket or whatever it is, and start at Chapter One all over again.

My husband is not someone who re-reads many books: he seems to feel (as many, many people do) that re-reading is usually not a good use of time, because there's so much out there to absorb. I, as I've written about before, am a compulsive re-reader of books. Is our daughter taking after both of us? Is she exhibiting both traits, in the way she picks out books to hear at bedtime? She almost never wants a "new" book at bedtime. Which I get: she wants something comforting and familiar. But everything starts out as something new, once upon a time, right? How does something make the leap from new and novel to comfortably worn-in? I wonder what other parents experience in this arena. I know that I have friends who began reading the Narnia books to their children when they were very young -- three, four years old -- and I rolled my eyes, because, well, ok: you probably couldn't pay me to read the Narnia books now, and as a child, I certainly wouldn't have sat through them. And can a three year old really understand it, anyhow? I'm not even talking about the Symbolism Of It All -- I just mean, can a toddler follow the plot? I don't know, I don't really care, to be honest. What I'm wondering is: Have those kids asked to hear the Narnia books again? And again? And again? Because I've gone through Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle about three times now (the entire series), and I've done Pippi Longstocking twice (and it's weird, because my girl asked for them again the other night, and it's the damnedest thing, but I cannot find them: they are here, someplace, but I cannot find them)...

And, at what point will these books become something she no longer wants me to read to her, but books that she wants to curl up with herself, for the eighteenth time?

It's an interesting thing, building a reader.

The Imponderables and The Institute Library

The Institute Library, which is now serving as a home for the New Haven Review, is about to see a big shift. It's an exciting change, but one I cannot help, personally, but be a little sad about. After three years, Will Baker is leaving his post as Executive Director of the Library, and moving to Pittsburgh. Now, I'm sure he'll have a grand old time there, as he is known for his love of Rust Belt cities. But this small New England city will not be the same without him. The Board of Directors of the Library spent a few months working on selecting a new Executive Director, and it was, I can tell you, a strange process filled with unexpected turns. I was, myself, on the search committee, and we read resumes from people living all over the United States. There were a lot of folks who were very hot to trot to come to the Library and take over where Will would be leaving off. I entered this process with a very open mind, thinking, "It is entirely possible that the next ED will be someone from Tennessee who hasn't ever been here but just somehow Gets It." Because, of course, this is a position where diplomas and straight-arrow resumes don't necessarily make someone the right candidate. This is a position where it really boils down to what Jeeves might refer to as "imponderables."  Having an MLS is nice, but not the point. What matters is having, oh, I don't know -- a kind of spirit and energy and gung-ho-ness; and having a real grasp of what the library has been about, and, what it can be about in the future. Those are really hard to quantify qualities.

It surprised me very much when at the end of the day, the library's new Executive Director turned out to be none other than a neighbor of mine, someone who I met last year when I found her lost mitten on Orange Street, someone who I see several times a week, in passing. Her name's Natalie Elicker, and she's someone who has been doing tremendous work around New Haven the last few years, working in various capacities. She's been working as a lawyer, but she's actually better known to me for doing all kinds of volunteer work and being one of those people that everyone seems to know. (At the time I met Natalie, returning her lost mitten to her, I was actually a little sheepish because I realized I'd probably walked past her house a million times, passed her on the street eight million times, and never once said hello. We ought to've known each other already.) So: Will Baker, who also has made his home on Orange Street the last few years, will be passing the baton to Natalie, resident of Orange Street. He's very happy about it, he tells me -- it turns out he has known Natalie since he moved to New Haven, years and years ago, and thinks very highly of her. (Will is clearly a better neighbor than I am.)

On Saturday, May 24th, the Library will be hosting an open house from 4 to 6 in the afternoon, so that any and all members of the New Haven community can come and celebrate Will's tenure at the Institute Library. When they come up the stairs, they will see a library that has changed so much from the place the Library was in 2011, when Will was hired.

When Will came on board, the Library was, granted, a pleasantly sleepy place -- it was a heavy mug of hot milk with honey in it: comfortable, eminently enjoyable, something that made you feel you were living in a novel of another era. But it was floundering in many ways, and it needed help. The Board had put a lot of energy into organizing that help, and was doing the best it could, but the fact was, someone was needed to be at the Library full-time, every day, and help wake the place up. We needed to change the Institute Library in some ways, yet find a way to maintain the old elements that made the Library the sanctuary it was. Somehow, Will Baker grasped this. He said, basically, "Hi, I'm Will, I think I can help you out." And he did. He took ideas we had and ran with them; he added his own ideas to the mix, and implemented them. People began to come into the library and then they added their ideas, and the day-to-day of the Library got very wondrously complex. The third floor was renovated, and a gallery was formed. It had been an utterly neglected space for decades -- decades! -- and it was, within a year, I think, of Will's hiring, a place where huge, crazy art pieces were installed, pieces that wouldn't have been displayed anywhere else in New Haven. (Thanks for this are, for sure, to be directed to Stephen Kobasa, who guided the gallery into existence and then made sure all was well for three years -- but it wouldn't have happened at all, I suspect, were it not for Will being there in the first place.)

With Will at the helm, the library was able to expand its hours. This is no small thing. This is a huge thing. There was a time when the library was only open about 10 hours a week, or something dismal like that, because financial worries made it impossible to do more. But the library made the investment in Will, who made the investment in the Library, in turn, and he changed the way things worked. Suddenly the library was open Monday through Friday, 10-6; and on Saturday, a corps of volunteers kept the place open mid-day. This was, at least to me, a huge sign. Being open -- almost nothing was as important as that, to me. The way the library had been so dormant all those years before -- the short hours were, to me, a symbol of all the sleepiness. It was quaint to read about but so hard to love ... because you simply couldn't get inside. But that changed.

The Library became a little daytime writer's colony. It became a place where alter kockers came to read magazines and peruse old books of essays and talk socialist politics. It became a place where teenagers came and helped out because they thought it was fun and because they felt like this was their place. Everyone's been at home at the library. This is an astounding level of change for some of the board members to contemplate. It seemed so improbable.

But we had to admit this: Library could not continue as it was. It had to adapt. The miracle here isn't really merely that Will changed the Library. A lot of people could have changed the Library and led it to a more stable place -- and while it's not sustainable, currently, it is closer to a sustainable financial footing than it has been in years -- because there are a lot of people who have fancy degrees in management and arts administration and such. And they could have come in and said, "OK, so, what we're going to do is this." And maybe the place would have thrived. But it would almost certainly have become an entirely different sort of place. And it could easily have lost its grounding in history, local history, because a lot of people aren't sensitive to that kind of thing. It's easy to talk about preservation, and have good intentions, but it is damned hard to achieve the preservation of a place like the Library. I've talked with a lot of people about it, over the years, and it's one of those things where either you Get It or you Don't. So I can tell you:

Few people would have allowed the Library to change and thrive with the style and manner that Will did. Will married Change with Preservation; he got the old and the new to talk with one another, civilly, and with laughter, and over cups of hot coffee. The Library may not be a double mocha cappuccino, but it is no longer the mug of hot milk and honey. It is something new, at the same time that it is something old. The Institute Library is a better place thanks to Will Baker, and we are indebted to him. I am indebted to him.

All are welcome Saturday afternoon. Four to six. Thanks, Will.

I was wrong in 1988. Bob Dylan Matters. OK?

So, in 1988, I was sitting in Broadway Pizza eating pizza and talking with some friends of mine who both happened to be named Dave. We were all people who cared a lot about music. I mean, a lot. We were the sort of people who went to record conventions to buy bootleg recordings of stuff, we spent hundreds of dollars collecting Japanese imports of, you know, whatever we were into. We were whack jobs. I worked at Cutler's Records, in those days. The subject of Bob Dylan came up. He had a new album out, and the Daves weren't drooling to get their hands on it, but they were saying things like, "yeah, I gotta get the new Dylan, I'll pick it up this weekend." And I snorted, "Bob Dylan is irrelevant."

This led to one of the biggest arguments about music I think I've ever had, and the Daves and I still talk about it today, when I run into them. Which isn't often, but this is New Haven, so, you know, it happens, now and then.

We laugh about it.

Dylan has proven to be important to a lot of people for longer than I could possibly have imagined, back then in June of 1988. Now, I personally still don't care much. I had a phase when I really enjoyed The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, and thanks to a college roommate who was obsessed with Blood on the Tracks, I came to really love that album too. But otherwise? I have to admit I don't really give a hoot.

Here's what I give a hoot about: Donald Brown's book about Bob Dylan. The Institute Library is hosting a book release party this week. Come on down. Maybe get the book. Here's why you should do this: because you know -- if you're a reader of the NHR's site -- Don is a smart guy. He's got a good sense of humor (something I find many Dylan types sorely lack). He's a really good writer. And... it's coming toward the end of May, and you need to get out more.

I'll see you there. I'll be the woman standing around arguing heatedly with whoever will listen, insisting that for my money, Lou Reed is more interesting than Dylan...

Here's the NHR / Institute Library site for reserving a spot.

And here's the amazon listing for the book, which already has some good review! (The book will be on sale at the party, slightly cheaper than on amazon.)


Library Event: Master Harold...and the Boys Film and Discussion

Mitchell Library, 37 Harrison Street, New Haven Saturday, April 12 @ 2pm


Join us for a film screening of Athold Fugard’s Master Harold… and the Boys, adapted from his play into a television movie in 1985. Directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg and starring Matthew Broderick, Zakes Mokae, and John Kani, Fugard’s play was produced at Yale Repertory Theatre in 1982 prior to its Broadway premiere, where it ran for 344 performances.

Taking place in South Africa during apartheid era, Master Harold shows how institutionalized racism, bigotry or hatred affects those who live under it.

Discussion facilitated by Long Wharf Theater staff will follow screening.

Also: Athol Fugard stars in The Shadow of the Hummingbird at Long Wharf Theater, March 26–April 27. Free tickets are available with your library card (first come, first served) at any New Haven Free Public Library branch

Program is made possible by a grant from the William Caspar Graustein Foundation.


A Review of These! Paper! Bullets! by a very reluctant theater-goer.

For two or three years now, my husband has been dragging me out of the house every few weeks to go to whatever’s going on at the Yale Rep. I am (to put it nicely) not someone who likes going to the theater, but I do appreciate a night away from the house, so I’m not complaining, really; but I will say, I’d be just as happy going to the movies. And with the Yale Rep -- you know, they like to do experimental stuff, it’s often brainier than I need, and over time I have arrived at this method of summing up my Yale Rep experiences: Is it a one-nap play or a two-nap play? We saw Paul Giamatti (who I love) in Hamlet last year. That, as I recall, was a three-nap play. I slept through the big fight scene.

The funny thing is, my husband (who never naps through any of the productions, and is far more charitably disposed, and loves live theater) often mocks Rep productions for the same reasons I do. What we often think is, The Rep productions are stunningly produced; they are technically amazing to watch, the performances are great. But man, the scripts are uneven. I’d say that each season gives us one or two shows we actually enjoy; but I’ve never gone napless through a Rep production. Until last night.

Friday night we went to see These! Paper! Bullets! and my own prediction was a) that I’d take a nap and b) I’d like it well enough anyway, and c) my husband would find it vaguely amusing without actually enjoying it. I turned out to be so, so wrong. So wrong, that I knew halfway through the evening I was going to have to write about this for the New Haven Review, because, frankly, if I enjoy something this much, I feel morally obligated to do something about it. A review here is pretty much the only thing I can do about it. Anyone who’s reading this and has a chance to see this production: Get yourself down to the Yale Rep. Sell some used books to Book Trader to come up with the money to buy tickets; borrow money; I don’t care. Go see These! Paper! Bullets!

Here’s the thing, folks. This is a situation where, for me as an audience member, there’s a lot going against a night out seeing this show. We have a tired mother, for starters. We have a format I don’t like (live theater). We’ve got a play based on a work I don’t care about at all (Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing). We’ve got a musician I don’t care about (Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day, a band I never liked). And we’ve got some theater people who -- I’ll be honest -- I just don’t know anything about, but people who know far better than I do think highly of them, so, fine (I glance in the directions of Donald Brown and Chris Arnott; I defer, always, to Chris in matters like these). We have the knowledge that it’s gonna be a Rep show, which usually means, “Jesus, seriously, you’re making me sit through this?” The only thing the play had going for it, in my case, is that I am a serious Beatles fan, and as such was likely to find at least the Beatles references in the show amusing. (In reality: they are more than amusing, they are really good.)

But what this very unlikely combinations of circumstances has led to is a very, very rare beast: a play that I would actually want to see again. Everyone in the cast is amazing; the dialogue is great; the costumes and sets are a pleasure, and there just isn’t enough time in the show to really take it all in. I cannot say enough good things about These! Paper! Bullets! and trust me: this kind of thing may never happen again.

Poem for Mandela

As it happens, our upcoming issue features a poem about Mandela. The author, Erik Gliebermann, is an academic and writing mentor in San Francisco. He visited Robben Island a few years ago and took a small rock from it. He wrote the poem on the rock and gave it to one of our poetry editors as a present. It seems appropriate to run it here quickly, as a tribute to the man on the day of his funeral.  

From the Soil


On the prison rooftop Mandela

grew tomatoes to feed every man,

the one who bled from the neck,

tightened the rope,

considered reprieve,

cleaned shit and memory

the next morning.

One flesh digests the seeds.


A choice tidbit that was recently brought to my attention, or: Where is my cocktail hat when I need it?

About three years ago, I learned something new about myself: I cannot hold my liquor at all anymore. The story isn’t a pretty one, but it was a moment in my personal history that I will never forget, and one which leaves me an odd choice to review the book at hand: Under the Table: A Dorothy Parker Cocktail Guide. And yet: I cannot resist. Compiled by Kevin C. Fitzpatrick (who’s The Man to Talk To if you need an expert on Parker these days), with some help from Allen Katz, this book is a charmingly assembled, lovely little package that many people will find an essential addition to their shelves. Now, I own more than a few bartender’s guides. I have logged serious quality time with The Savoy Cocktail Book and in my younger days I often assembled drinks while checking a Mr. Boston guide -- is that still the standard beginner’s guide to booze? Under the Table is not the kind of encyclopedic book that belongs in every household with a bottle of gin. It’s a specialty item. But it’s both informative and useful: it gives nice little histories of each drink, and is well organized, and very handsomely designed. Even so, it will leave many people shrugging. If you’re not enchanted by the world of the Algonquin Round Table, or by early 20th century American history more broadly, then you’d best leave this one on the shelf of the bookstore. It’s not for you. If your idea of a drink is, say, a Long Island Iced Tea, a wine spritzer, or shooters with names like Cement Mixer, this is not for you. In researching current trends in bartending, for the purpose of writing this review in an informed manner, I discovered that there is something called a Chocolate Martini. If you are someone who gets that, either conceptually or in actual life, when out in a bar: this book is not for you.

But if you’re someone who takes your booze at all seriously -- not in the sense of being a snob, necessarily, but in the sense of, When you want a drink, you want it to be a good, solid, season-appropriate drink; if you are someone who believes (as I do) that a gin and tonic cannot be respectably consumed in the wintertime, and that bourbon is a year-round item, as long as the accessories are seasonal -- then this is a book you will enjoy tremendously.  This is a book for people who don’t need their booze hidden under frills or umbrellas or tricks to make it so you don’t know you’re drinking alcohol. And if you’re a sucker for John Held drawings, so much the better. Yes: the book contains the requisite Yale reference (Yale Cocktail, p. 121), but even if it didn’t, I would be fond of this book, and happy with Kevin Fitzpatrick’s  work. Here is the highest praise I can offer to Under the Table: from it, I learned of a drink called the Jean Harlow, and now I want one very, very badly. How had I never been aware of this before? I intend to acquire a bottle of white rum immediately (I’ve already got the Cinzano) to make this at home; and when I am next out at night, a renegade matron on the loose -- 116 Crown, are you ready for me? -- I expect to order a Jean Harlow and enjoy it all the more, because I will not have mixed it myself.

Under the Table: A Dorothy Parker Cocktail Guide will be published in November by Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot.

A Great Failing on My Part: One Reader's Confession

I don’t think about this very often but every now and then it occurs to me that I must be the only woman in the reading population of the U.S. who did not devour the Little House books when she was a little girl. The subject came up again tonight. It comes up maybe once every two years.

A number of women were gushing over their love of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s oeuvre, and they turned to me expectantly and all I could do was say, “I read a chapter of one once in Cricket when I was little; I liked that story.” But beyond that, nothing.

When I was a little girl I owned no Little House books. I owned hundreds of books; my mother never refused to buy me a book I wanted to read, at least not that I can recall. I had a thousand stupid young adult novels and the complete Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and I had every single Trixie Belden book. But I never wanted to read Little House on the Prairie, I think mostly because it was set in the country, and my reaction to the country, even as a child (and -- notably -- even as a child who spent her summers down a dirt road in New Hampshire), was, “Eh, who cares?” And my mother never suggested them to me. She never presented me with a lovely boxed set -- you know the set I mean, in the checked box -- I think probably because she had never read them either.

What's more, I grew up when Little House on the Prairie was a crazily popular TV show, and the few times I watched it, it bored the daylights out of me. Even as a kid, I preferred Barney Miller and Taxi. So I went on with my life, totally ok with my ignorance of the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

The thing that made me wonder if I’d missed out was reading Laurie Colwin, who in one of her essays cites Farmer Boy as being some of the best food writing out there. She quotes a passage in which a young boy (Almanzo?) goes to some country fair and eats an absolutely ridiculous amount of food and then he draws a long breath and eats pie.

Some time around 2002 I decided to finally have a gander at Farmer Boy; I remember finding a copy at Book Trader Cafe and thinking, “Well, ok, for two bucks, why the hell not.” It sat on my shelf for a few years before I finally read it. But I did read it. And now all I can remember of it is the bit that Laurie Colwin quoted. And have I read any of the other Little House books?

No, I have not. And I feel kind of bad about this. I feel sufficiently bad about it that I am seriously considering taking the first book out from the library and having it be a book I read aloud, slowly, chapter by chapter, to my little girl, who’s now old enough to enjoy something like that. Something long and sustained. We did James and the Giant Peach over the course of a week, and she loved it. We’ve done all the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggles, except (tellingly!) Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm, my copy of which I cannot find for the life of me -- and I have looked.

It’s August, but this will be my New Year’s Resolution. I will try again with Laura Ingalls Wilder.

What Vegetable Are You? or, I Have No Idea Who Killed Sister George.

Last night I had a hot date. My friend M, who I don't get to hang out with very often, asked me if I'd like to accompany her to see The Killing of Sister George, now opened at the newly-renovated Long Wharf Theatre. I am not a theater person, but, on the other hand, I am not one to turn down the offer of a night away from my four year old, so I said, "Sure!"

I wasn't fully aware of it at the time I accepted her offer, but this show is a big deal for Long Wharf for many reasons, the most glitzy being, the play is directed by, and stars, world-famous hot tomato Kathleen Turner.

M and I got to Long Wharf and it turned out that the comp tickets we thought would be awaiting us were not awaiting us. It's a long story, and not that interesting. But we were not alone: many others in the same boat also didn't get in. So, the theatre staff, clearly feeling like schmucks, and feeling bad for everyone, offered us all tickets for another performance. The staff was actually really nice, and very apologetic to us. We got our consolation prize tickets and then, of course ,the question was: Well, if we're not seeing the play, what the hell do we do now?

This question was settled by our running into Steve Scarpa. I know Steve a little: we've wasted quite a few hours chatting about nothing in particular, either standing on the street, or at the Institute Library. I think he was rather surprised to see me at the theatre: he knows I'm not that kind of girl, generally speaking. I explained that I was really M's date, just along for the ride. He said he was really sorry we hadn't been able to see the show, and urged us to have a drink and stay for the after-party. M and I considered our options (many and varied, of course -- there is no shortage of places where we could have gone to have a drink; or, we could have just called it a night and gone home, but that'd be dull). The consensus was: What the hell, we'll stick around. So, she (with her complimentary wine) and I (with my complimentary bourbon) sat down in the lobby and had a good old-fashioned chinwag, of the type we only get to have two or three times a year. It was, really, so nice to sit and talk. And in a pretty glitzy setting, without loud music blaring: not bad at all.

At the after-party, where there were tables of food awaiting us, M and I wound up in conversation with my fellow New Haven Review contributor Donald Brown (who is, of course, a real theater buff; his presence at the play was not at all surprising). Among the topics we discussed was vegetables, because we were trying to assure someone near us that the thing she was about to eat was, yes, a piece of fried eggplant -- she seemed concerned that it might be... something else. (No idea what.) The practical aspects  of vegetables taken care of, we moved on to more important questions -- specifically, one, which was: If you were a vegetable, what vegetable would you be? This is an awesome parlor game, by the way. M swears that years ago, she and my husband and I played this game together and that he said I was, no question, an artichoke. I don't remember this at all but I accept it easily. We decided that being an eggplant probably would be a mixed bag, since they absorb so much grease (a bad thing), but that, on the upside, they adapt to so many flavors so well.

We were wondering whether or not Donald was an ear of corn -- concluding, in the end, that he might well be  -- when Kathleen Turner arrived in the room.

It bears repeating that Ms. Turner is a hot tomato, but in light of our conversation of the moment, M reconsidered and said that she was maybe more of a red pepper. I concede that this is possible. A red pepper is one thing raw, but another thing entirely -- smokier, sexier -- when roasted. We watched Ms. Turner charm her fried-mushroom-eating and spinach-stuffed-bread-eating audience, and finally worked up our nerve to go over to her and shake her hand. We considered asking her What vegetable are you? but decided not to: Too Barbara Walters, we agreed. In the end we simply said it was nice to meet her. She was gracious and spoke to us briefly in her strange raspy voice.

But then: what else was left for us to do? Not much. What do you do once you've shaken hands with Kathleen Turner?

We said goodnight to Donald and headed out. As luck would have it, Ms. Turner did the same thing, and so we had the pleasure of watching her make her way to her car. We didn't follow them closely enough that I could tell you "and we tailed them all the way to Turner's hotel, and then we went upstairs and killed a bottle of whiskey with her -- good times. We picked up a Veggie Bomb pizza from Modern, too, because, you know, when in New Haven..." No, we're not that interesting. M drove me home, and then she drove herself home, and that was that.

A night at the theater when you don't get to see the play should be a frustrating night. Anyone would guess that. But M and I, we had a hell of a good time.

Richard Dorsett

New Haven used to have a pretty tight-knit community of booksellers. Of course, as bookstores have closed, that aspect of cultural life in New Haven has all but vanished as well, to be replaced by other kinds of literary communities (like the one fostered here at the New Haven Review). But most of us still talk to people who were part of that community. We know Henry Berliner (the Foundry Bookstore) and Charlie Negaro (Atticus) and Chris Evans (Elm City Books). John Gearty, my former boss at Arethusa, is someone I run into at Romeo's from time to time, and we inevitably stand there for forty-five minutes, chatting as aimlessly as we ever did. I have no idea what Henry Schwab from Book Haven is up to these days, I admit, but probably half the people reading this know and will be happy to tell me.

Another bookman in New Haven, William Reese, is not so much a man about town as a bookseller, because he never had an open shop, but he is about as well-known as a bookman can be in this town, by virtue of his field (high-end Americana and literature). His staff are mostly mysteriously perched behind the scenes, but I've known a few of them over the years, and counted them as friends. One of them was particularly dear to me, and it always bothered me that he was not embraced by the city of New Haven, and that he left, in the end, to go back to his hometown in Texas. He was a treasure, the sort of person who should have been adored here. He was sort of person who would talk to anyone, have a good time arguing with you, and call you up three weeks later to tell you that he'd found a book for you -- something you needed that you didn't know existed. Richard Dorsett had a way of seeming to know about everything under the sun, and if he didn't know about the thing you were thinking about, he knew someone who did, and he'd tell you to get in touch with him. Richard was amazing. I want to write that he is amazing, but he died, I learned a few days ago, on October 26th, at the age of 57.
Richard lived in New Haven for only a few years, and he was never part of the "scene" in New Haven the way he obviously was in his hometown of Austin. He wasn't a pillar of any community here. He spent a huge amount of time going to clubs to see shows, and he knew every bookstore in town. But he lacked the web of friends and associates here that he deserved, perhaps because he was blustery and could be arrogant. I think he was disappointed in New Haven very quickly and, as is common to people who move here, he never quite felt at home here because the city didn't greet him with open arms, the way he was greeted everywhere, I gather, in Austin. But he was a dear friend of mine, one of my favorite people in New Haven in the years he was here. It saddens me so much that he is gone, and that I'll never get to talk to him again. I want New Haven to know: you missed out. If you never spent an evening hanging out with Richard Dorsett, you really missed out.
I met Richard when he was working for Reese and I was working at Arethusa. I have to admit, I don't remember our first meeting, but I remember enjoying chatting with him immensely. I remember going over to his apartment for the first time: it was filled with the most fascinating crap, plus about a million books, and it was hazy with cigarette smoke. Richard had a skeleton standing up in his living room, and he had barrister's cases for the books he really didn't want anyone to mess with. Shortly after we became friends, my then-beau and I decided to shack up together, and started looking for a cheap apartment. Richard suggested we rent the place upstairs from him, which had just become available. I remember emailing the beau in Boston, writing, "It's 600 a month -- I think it's a sign from God." Every place we'd looked at downtown was twice that much -- and this apartment was twice as big as anything we'd seen downtown. In May 1999 I moved to 150 Willow Street, and my other half moved in a month later. Richard was on the first floor; the upstairs neighbors, Dave and Laurie, were wonderful people too, it turned out; and for a few years, we lived in what has to've been the happiest multi-family house in New Haven.
Richard would come padding up the back stairs to our kitchen door in his slippers and bathrobe, holding a cup of coffee and a copy of some obscure magazine, and ask me if I had any interest in a box of wigs he'd just acquired. He was always going to estate sales and picking up the damndest things. I mean, he was always hunting for interesting books -- he liked the weird, the erotic, and the obscure, but he knew about the classics, the things there would always be a market for -- but he would buy all kinds of stuff. I remember him buying a huge box of old penknives. And shoes: he liked shoes. Richard had style, and he appreciated it in others.
I think his contrariness bothered a lot of people but that it was their mistake to write him off after one trivial argument. I know he argued with people who I'd've thought it was impossible to argue with, and I guess he had a hard time getting people to "get" him, if you know what I mean. New Haven can be a really unfriendly place to newcomers. If you're not part of the Yale community, or automatically plugged into some other social system (by virtue of family or friends you already have here or whathaveyou), New Haven is a difficult place to land. I know from experience and I am always being told, we don't make it easy for people to call New Haven home. It always mystified and saddened me that so few people here appreciated Richard Dorsett.
Richard had a loud laugh. He liked to sing to himself, and one of our favorite memories of living upstairs from him is of the morning he was pootling around his apartment make arrangements for a relative's memorial service. He'd spent months and months tending an ailing cousin in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in the end, Richard was the one in charge of everything, I guess. All I know is, we could hear him making coffee and singing to himself, as if he were Gene Autry, "Funeral hooooo-ommmmmmmmme...." Sort of almost yodeling to himself.
Richard Dorsett left New Haven in 2002 or 2003, I can't remember -- it was a few months after we moved out of 150 Willow Street to a house around the corner. He gave us some of his furniture -- nice stuff -- and moved back to Austin to take care of his aging father. I only heard from Richard now and then after that -- we usually talked on the phone around New Year's, and occasionally we'd chat on Facebook. I spoke to him a couple of months ago, and, in fact, was thinking just yesterday that I needed to call him again to tell him how a project I'm working on was progressing -- I knew he'd think it was cool to hear about. You cannot imagine my shock when I got the message -- from a stranger, via Facebook --  that he'd died, alone in his house. I wish it hadn't been that way. I hope it was fast for him. I hope he wasn't in pain. Richard was someone who had a lot of anger in him -- anger toward people who he felt weren't paying attention, who were ignorant, who were mean, who had no sense of humor -- but he was always a sweetheart to me. I loved Richard, and I have a hard time imagining life without him in it. Richard was a finder-outer, he was a digger-into, he was an elegant weirdo. We loved him so much. I'm so sorry he's gone. And New Haven, you should be ashamed for not having fought to keep him here so that you could have learned to love him too. But you like your assholes pedigreed, with papers to prove you're smart and know the right people. Richard was not pedigreed, but he was one of the best bookmen I've ever known and one of the best neighbors I have ever had. My husband and I will miss you, and we will miss you even on behalf of all the people here who didn't have the patience or sense to love you while you were here.

The Institute Library Gets Haimish.

Just in time for the High Holidays. Here we are, at the Jewish New Year -- Rosh Hashana to you and me, or, at least, to me, and here's what I've realized, very suddenly, in the last hour. The Institute Library (which regular readers will recognize is a place toward which I direct a lot of my energy) is a long-lived if low-profiled literary institution in downtown New Haven, and it's going through a weird transformation. It seems to be morphing from a place with an extraordinarily WASPy vibe to a place that looks WASPy but is thinking of converting. For all I know, in fact, it has converted, and it's just that nobody told me.

I mean, I know the place was founded to be a working man's library. I know that, and I get it. But I also feel like somewhere along the way it got kind of Edith Whartony. Or maybe that's not right. John Cheevery. Maybe I'm wrong -- I haven't done real research into this -- but I feel like it ceased to be a middle-class hangout -- or, a working-class/middle- class hangout -- and became more of a private club, more the kind of place where you'd've seen the guys who worked at New Haven's white shoe law firms hanging out after having a long lunch at, I don't know, George & Harry's, or something. Certainly by the time I became a member of the library, it seemed like a kind of elitist joint that, ok, had maybe fallen into obscurity, but still retained a certain grandeur; and it also retained a sense of exclusivity even though on paper anyone could join. There was a closed feeling, a sense of it being a private club, and not always in a warm, welcoming way. The place was fascinating, certainly, and I never felt unwelcome there myself, but I could imagine people being wigged out by the library, and taking one look, and just... never coming back.

Something's changed. The Institute Library's gotten haimish while I wasn't really paying attention.

Is it because three out of the three events I've paid attention to at the library recently featured Jewish speakers? I don't know -- but I know it to be true. And I find it funny -- I imagine the Cheevery types of the 1940s and 50s raising their eyebrows every so slightly. But listen: this is good stuff. Josh Foer has twice now hosted these fabulous evenings where we in the audience got to hear people speak of their weird passions -- the series is called Amateur Hour at the Institute Library, and it is wicked fun. The first time Foer did this, he interviewed Jack Hitt, who of course is fun to listen to -- but it was, actually, Foer's questions that tickled me the most. Unfortunately, I cannot remember why now. I just remember that while I enjoyed Hitt's answers to the questions, I actually liked Foer's delivery. The third degree, but, you know, friendly.

Then, a few nights ago, Foer hosted Alan Abel, the world's greatest hoaxster, for the second Amateur Hour. Let me tell you: if you can't spend an evening listening to Josh Foer interview Milton Berle -- and you cannot -- you could spend an evening listening to him question Abel, and it would not be so different. The material is different, granted, and there were slightly fewer jokes about schlongs or mothers-in-law, but the mode was distinctly Jewish. Even if the guy spent twenty minutes talking to us with a tampon up his nose, something my mother would not recommend you do in polite company. You have to take my word for it. The refreshments that Atticus brought -- they shouldn't have brought brownies, they should have brought rugelach. Not that I'm complaining. I love brownies.

And now, tomorrow night, to close out Rosh Hashanah, we've got Davy Rothbart -- a Jew of younger vintage, but still. A guy with remarkable comic timing, Davy Rothbart: even written on the page, it makes me laugh aloud. (You've probably heard him on This American Life and thought he was hilarious, but I never have; I don't listen to it.) He's coming with his brother Peter, to talk about Davy's new book of essays, My Heart is an Idiot, and to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the remarkable magazine they publish, FOUND, which is, if you don't know it, something to behold. Between the book and the magazine and the New Year, there's a lot to celebrate at the Institute Library tomorrow. I suddenly wish I'd organized my weekend differently; if I'd planned ahead, I could have made a babka to bring to the Library tomorrow night. I'd've cut you a slice to have with your coffee. I would definitely serve some to the people from the New York Times who're going to be there. (Yes, the New York Times is paying attention to Davy and Peter Rothbart and the Institute Library: maybe you should, too.) I'm sorry; I wasn't thinking ahead. But you should come anyhow. Monday night, September 17, at 8: Davy and Peter Rothbart. A night to remember. The Institute Library, 847 Chapel Street. For information on buying tickets, please visit the library's website, www.institutelibrary.org.

A book I forgot to read a few years ago

I find that summertime is when I remember titles I meant to read years ago but forgot about for no good reason. The other day, for example, a copy of Nicholas Dawidoff's The Crowd Sounds Happy fell into my hands, and I sounded pretty happy about it myself, because I really wanted to read that when it came out. And then forgot about it entirely. I cannot remember the last time I read a book so quickly. I got it home and had finished reading it within, I think, 36 hours. Somewhere around page 40, I sent an email to a friend and said to her, "I don't know if you have time for recreational reading, but if you do, you should really take a look at this." When my husband came home from work, I said to him, "I've started reading a book and I think you need to read it."

It's not that I think Dawidoff's book has universal appeal; far from it. I think it will appeal to people who grew up as sort of sad lonely baseball fans -- which, okay, is probably a large group -- and people who grew up in Dawidoff's version of New Haven (a relatively small demographic). His descriptions of listening to games on the radio are lovely. The descriptions of his family life range from sweet to  harrowing. But what slayed me, personally, was his writing about the city I live in. I live, now, just a few blocks away from where Dawidoff grew up, and as someone who's there and raising a child, I could not help but find it fascinating. I was so interested in his memories of New Haven, in fact, that I found myself speculating about how no one who hadn't lived in New Haven in the 1970s would ever want to read this book. Now, that's probably not literally true, but it might not be far from the truth.

No one needs me to tell them that Dawidoff's a good writer. No one needs me to review this book at all, really. But if you are like me -- someone who has all good intentions of reading something which you then forget about until prodded, years after the reviews -- you need someone to remind you. Yes, this is a book you want to pick up. It's not a heartwarming book; Dawidoff isn't a guy you'd describe as happy-go-lucky. But it's a wonderful depiction of one kind of life in one specific version of New Haven, and I'm very glad to've read it.

The Lights on Broadway. Specifically, the neon sign we all wanted to put in our apartments, back when we were young and cool.

I speak, of course, of the massive Cutler's Records sign. The Cutler's sign was not only literally huge, but it was metaphorically huge in the mind of anyone who lived in New Haven. It was the most important physical marker on Broadway. Seeing the Cutler's sign -- which was neon, and in my childhood, I could swear, had a record moving on the turntable, though maybe I'm making that up -- you knew you were here. You couldn't possibly be anywhere else. Cutler's wasn't a chain. It was of New Haven and for New Haven. You could buy recordings of every Yale singing group you never wanted to hear, and all the local bands who maybe you wanted to hear, or maybe you didn't, because the bass player never called you even though he said he would, that asshole. People who knew Cutler's as the small storefront it's been in recent years have absolutely no way of understanding how phenomenal it once was. It's not merely that it used to be bigger. It's that it used to be bigger and what they had was music. Just music. There was a huge classical side, where your longhair types could find whatever it was they wanted (don't ask me, I don't know a thing about it), and there was a room full of 45s, where you could find every pop hit you'd ever hummed to yourself absent-mindedly and then couldn't get out of your head even though you couldn't remember the title. I know this because I used to be the girl in the 45s room and a large part of my job was to deal with customers who came in and asked me to sell them the song they couldn't remember. "It went like this: 'ooooh, baby, I said, yeah, yeah, yeah....'" these people would sing. If I didn't know the song, I'd go get someone else to help. Sam, there was a guy named Sam who knew every disco tune ever (this was not the same man who ran the classical side, Sam Carmack). There was Bob, who knew pretty much everything in every genre, probably because he'd been working at Cutler's since I was around four years old. The staff was incredible. It shifted a lot -- people tend to come and go in record stores, though there's always a core staff that stays forever -- but you knew that if someone was working there, they knew their shit in at least one category. And we had reference works to help us out if we were stumped, though I can't remember us using them more than once or twice in the few months I worked at Cutler's. The staff just knew the material. And we were good at helping people find that song, and we'd sell them the 45, and they'd leave the store with their little paper bags and head home, happy as clams.

My tenure at Cutler's was very short. It was the first job from which I got fired. I never knew why. After practically begging for a job -- Al Lotto hired me, finally, and I don't really know why -- I spent maybe four months working for Phil Cutler. It was 1988. I don't think I'd graduated from high school yet when I started, though perhaps I had, just barely. I was living in a mouse-infested apartment on Elm Street which I was subletting from three Yale students, and had the shortest walk to work imaginable. I was paid very little money, but it was all right: my rent was $250 a month and I basically had no substantial expenses beyond that. Then one day I went to clock in and there was no time card for me. I went to Al to ask where my card was. He said, "It's not there? Hang on, let me see if it's still in the desk." And when he came back to me, he looked unhappy. "Phil says you can go home," he told me. Ever cool, I said, "What?" and burst into tears. Poor Al. He gave me a hug and said, "Don't worry, you'll be fine." He didn't seem to understand what had happened any more than I did. I walked back to my disgusting apartment, cried a little more, and then hit the streets to find another job. Around lunchtime, Atticus offered me a job, and I became a bookman.

But Cutler's remained the best record store around, even if I was angry at the owner for canning me. Other new record stores came and went. I remember Amperes, and Strawberries, and Sam Goody's. I remember the used record stores downtown, which often seemed to be staffed by refugees from Cutler's -- you saw the same people flitting in and out all the time.

It is because of the time I spent in the record stores on Broadway -- Cutler's and Rhymes -- that when Nick Hornby's High Fidelity came out, I was able to smack myself on the head over and over again and say, "oh my god, this is the best book I've ever read." It's because of the time I spent in those stores that, when I first read Laurie Colwin's Goodbye Without Leaving, I was able to see so, so clearly, Fred's Out of Print Records, the store where Geraldine hangs out.

In a few days, Cutler's will close. I've gone and finally done something I never thought I would do: I bought Cutler's t-shirts. I now ardently wish I had one of the shirts that had the classic drawing of Cutler's*. But I was too proud to buy one when they were still making them. I gave a t-shirt to my brother this past weekend. He was visiting us -- an unusual occurrence -- and when I told him Cutler's was closing his jaw dropped and he said, "Ok, I gotta go tomorrow and buy --" "Don't worry, I've got it. I already got you one." If I could have, I'd've bought the neon sign, too.

*The drawing can be seen in the Hendricks/Goetzmann book About Town, and don't even get me started on that right now. But if you want to buy a copy you can:  contact the William Reese Company http://www.williamreesecompany.com/shop/reeseco/contact.html

Kindling The Creative Fire: Alice Munro's Two Versions of "Wood"

Awano: You sometimes write stories about the act of writing itself.  Could “Wood” be read as a story about writing? Munro: That’s very interesting, and I don’t mind the idea at all.  I don’t write that way, but…

Awano: But you read that way.

Munro: And I do write as if clearly ordinary events are tremendously important, because that’s the way they seem to me.

From “The Tremendous Importance of Ordinary Events: An Interview with Alice Munro about two versions of ‘Wood,’” by Lisa Dickler Awano, New Haven Review


[T]he triumph of my life is that none of the environments I found myself in prevailed over me.

-- Alice Munro, from Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing up with Alice Munro, by Sheila Munro


Alice Munro writes about the ordinary outsider—the unhappy housewife, the child born with a large purple birthmark on his face, the Alzheimer’s patient, the small town protagonist who can’t or won’t fit into the community’s narrow perceptions of normalcy—and examines how that character—who may never stop longing for societal approval—does and doesn’t challenge convention, does and doesn’t risk rejection by peers, does and doesn’t act on desires to live a larger life than the one society offers.  Intriguingly, Munro's theme also applies to the lives of writers and the workings of the creative process, as an “outsider” mental experience that illuminates, deludes, cooperates and confounds, but which will never be reined in by the confines of practical, rational, repressive thought.

As a writer, Munro is known to be a tireless self-editor who will often continue to rewrite and revise her stories, even after they have been accepted for publication. “Wood,” which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1980, is a good example.  After nearly thirty years, Munro returned to this story.  The second version of “Wood” has been published in Too Much Happiness, Munro’s most recent collection of stories.

When the two versions are placed side by side, readers can see with what poetic precision Munro revised both large details, such as characterizations, themes and perspectives, and small ones—a rhythmic syllable here, a conjunction or punctuation mark there—as she shifted the point-of-view of the characters from middle-age to older, and heightened the story’s lyricism.  Like many of Munro’s stories, “Wood” is set in “Munro Country,” the Huron County farmlands of southwestern Ontario—“Sowesto,” as the Canadian locale is popularly known—where the author came of age and has lived much of her life.  While growing up in this practical-minded community, she played down her creative ambition so she would appear to fit in better with her peers.  Even as an adult, the author has said, she has lived a double life—that of a writer on the one hand, and a working-for-a-living wife, mother and community member on the other.  Similarly, she often writes a “double story” of sorts; shaping her universal literature from the overlooked lives of seemingly ordinary people, while all the while, directly or obliquely, writing about the process of writing fiction and the issues faced by writers as individuals and as members of society.

Munro’s literary protagonists don’t always appear to be engaged in literary work. They may be, for example, craftsmen like Roy, the protagonist of both versions of “Wood,” who is a happily married sign painter in the first version of the story, and an upholsterer and re-finisher of furniture in the second.  Some of the protagonists in these stories are akin to her real-life father, Robert Laidlaw, who began writing when he was around seventy years old, after a lifetime of supporting his family through physical labor.  Doppelgängers abound in Munro’s work, tying characters together across stories and collections, and when father and daughter characters appear together, they often appear to be doubles.

Laidlaw’s historical novel, The McGregors, which included descriptions of tree cutting, was published in 1979, three years after his death at age seventy-four.  Although a lifelong reader, he suffered from “natural Laidlaw timidity,” (Munro, S., 105), and was torn between his creative individuality and his desire for acceptance from his rural community.  He, like his daughter, described himself as having lived a double life.  At fourteen, he dropped out of high school, and became a trapper and fisher in the bush, thereby avoiding his father’s more locally sanctioned path of farming.

To put Laidlaw’s choice in context, one might read Munro’s memoirish story, “Working for a Living,” in which she describes the trees in the bush as community outsiders, so to speak, relegated to fringes of farmland:

There was no more wild country in Huron County then (in the first quarter of the 20th century) than there is now. Perhaps there was less.  The farms had been cleared in the period between 1830 and 1860, when the Huron Tract was being opened up, and they were cleared thoroughly.  Many creeks had been dredged—the progressive thing to do was to straighten them out and make them run like tame canals between the fields.  The early farmers hated the very sight of a tree and admired the look of open land.  And the masculine approach to the land was managerial, dictatorial.  Only women were allowed to care about landscape and not to think always of its subjugation and productivity. (“Working for a Living,” 130 )

Laidlaw later supported his wife and three children through fox and mink farming, and raised the animals in an intricate system of pens he designed and built behind the family home.  Similarly, in “Wood:”

Roy’s workshop is in a shed behind the house.  It is heated by a woodstove, and getting the fuel for the stove has led him to another interest, which is private but not secret.  That is, everybody knows about it but nobody knows how much he thinks about it or how much it means to him. (Too Much Happiness, 226; slightly different in New Yorker, 46)

The trees Roy seeks out for cutting are those that logging firms have rejected as not being useful or beautiful.  Roy looks for treetops left behind after logging, or trees targeted by the “forest management people” for removal, because they are “diseased or crooked or no good for lumber.” (TMH, 229; New Yorker, 46)

The physical setting in “Wood,” as in all of Munro's fiction, is psychologically revealing.  Descriptions in her stories serve a narrative purpose; what may appear to be a gratuitous diversion in fact propels a complex plot in ways that readers may not at first consciously detect.  Early in both versions of  “Wood,” a long passage describes trees in the Sowesto bush: ironwood, cherry, apple, ash, maple, beech, and oak.  At first glance, this cataloging may seem to contribute only atmosphere to the story.  But as Roy reflects on the trees’ appearances—the maple trees, for example, “always look like the common necessary tree in the backyard,” and the oak trees, “always look like trees in storybooks,” with “intricate surface(s), and the devilish curling and curving of the branches” (TMH, 230; slightly different in New Yorker, 47)—and as he contemplates how they grow and behave and make him feel, they become stand-ins for members of his community.  They remind us of characters we have met in Munro’s oeuvre who reappear in different manifestations from story to story, linking Munro’s works across the span of her sixty-year career.  And the trees as characters demonstrate Munro’s structural use of metamorphosis to achieve narrative compression; how she may use a symbol to convey a variety of meanings in the space of one story; or—as exemplified by Munro’s depiction of Lea, in the second version of “Wood,”—how her characters turn sharp narrative corners that cause them to react and change, more than once in a story, to the point of personal transformation.  Through such devices, Munro achieves, in short fiction, a range of events and a degree of character evolution that is novelistic in scope.

The creative protagonist in Munro’s stories, like the author herself and her father before her, leads a double life.  Publicly, Munro’s protagonist tries to satisfy the expectations of his community, influenced by a Scots-Presbyterian ethos that prizes highly controlled—or “useful”—pursuits like farming, so as not to be ostracized for challenging cultural “rules” of his small town.  This society scorns “fanciful” isolated interests, like wandering in the woods and harvesting wildlife or, by metaphoric extension, investigating the unrestrained, unconscious thoughts and feelings of human beings through the writing of fiction.  And it frowns upon those who draw attention to their own achievements: “Who Do You Think You Are?” is the title of Munro’s story in which a teacher punishes a student for “showing off” her academic skills to her class and mildly challenging the instructor’s authority. Accordingly, the artist must be discreet about her pursuit of the solitary, self-centered goal of discovering a unique voice or an aesthetic sensibility to fulfill a personal potential that serves no one and nothing other than the artist’s own vision.

The relationship between creativity and solitude is a recurring Munrovian theme.

[I]n a way [Roy’s] thoughts about wood are too private—they are covetous and nearly obsessive.  He has never been a greedy man in any other way …. Even what is worthless for his purposes will interest him …. He would like to get a map in his mind of every bush he sees, and though he might justify this by citing practical purposes, that wouldn’t be the whole truth. (TMH, 232; somewhat different in New Yorker, 48)

Munro’s daughter Sheila remembers that in the latter 1950’s, when the family moved into a home that reflected their upward mobility in West Vancouver, “[t]ucked away in the darkest corner of my parent’s dark bedroom [was] a small table with a typewriter on it.  That is where my mother [wrote]” (Munro, S., 47).

In the second version of “Wood,” Roy and his wife Lea manifest seemingly opposite impulses toward independence and togetherness that suggest conflicting desires coexisting within many of us.  Roy’s wife, who is initially a more outgoing person than he is in both versions, (in the second version she changes once she becomes ill), enjoys large family gatherings and working in a dentist’s office, where, in the second rendering of “Wood,” she is a “receptionist and bookkeeper” (TMH, 226). Munro loves word play, and as a “receptionist”—perhaps by metaphoric extension—Lea can be seen as a “receiver” of Roy’s and her community-members’ anecdotes or stories, as many members of Munro’s paternal family have been for generations.  For example, Scottish ancestor, Margaret Hogg, (mother of James Hogg, who wrote Confessions of a Justified Sinner, and was an acquaintance of both Wordsworth and Byron), recited ballads she had learned from her father and others to Sir Walter Scott for inclusion in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (Munro, S., 176).

Alice Munro herself has been a “bookkeeper” in various ways: always a writer, she has also been a librarian, and during her married-with-children years in Vancouver, she and her husband founded the still thriving “Munro’s” bookstore, where, her daughter Sheila tells us, “for the first time in her life, [Munro] could encounter the outside world with confidence...listen to people’s stories and then conveniently go home.”  At the bookstore, Munro developed social ease, as her father had done in his mid-thirties, among fellow workers at a foundry, and Sheila says of them both: “It was a huge relief, a liberation, to find oneself socially acceptable after all, after years of seeking to avoid some imagined humiliation” (Munro, S., 189-190).

In both versions of “Wood,” the “quiet” Roy works alone (TMH, 225, 227; New Yorker, 46). In the later take on the story, he once thought he might teach his trade to his wife’s niece—and this is implied in the first version as well, in which Roy and his wife helped to raise the girl.  But the niece has made different choices—and other choices have been made for her—and Roy enjoys solitude in his shed and in the forest.  In the 1980 version he is a painter of signs – or perhaps metaphorically speaking, of symbols, or mysteries; “the only one in this part of the country, and he gets more business than he can handle” (New Yorker, 46). The signs that farmers ask him to paint for their gates represent fictionalized views of modern farm life—such as animals set against backdrops of rolling hills—when in fact the livestock are raised in tight enclosures devoid of sunlight.

In the 2009 version Roy is an upholsterer and re-finisher of “furniture”—the outlooks, artifacts, and memories that furnish the cultural history of his society.   “He will also take on the job of rebuilding chairs and tables that have lost some rungs or a leg, or are otherwise in a dilapidated condition.  There aren’t many people doing that kind of work anymore…” the intimate third-person narrator notes (TMH, 225), perhaps commenting on the current decline in fiction writing in our society, as well as our cultural propensity to worship youth and perfection, and reject or replace what is broken or imperfect.

Munro, the constant re-writer, reinterprets, as does Roy, the signs and mysteries of the first version of “Wood” from her later-life perspective, and she literally “refinishes” the first take on the story by writing a new ending.   The author’s interest in re-imagining stories appears in various ways throughout her work.  Across stories and story collections, there exist many connections between Munro’s characters.  Situational templates, such as that of the protagonist who works alone in a shed behind the house, or that of a character who develops an all-consuming illness, reappear in ever-changing guises.  In each variant, the protagonist makes different and surprising choices that lead to the twists and turns of plot that uniquely drive the narrative toward its equivocal ending.

This manner of “refinishing” stories also illustrates Munro’s fascination with questions of memory, and her observation that we constantly rewrite the stories of our lives, at different times and from different perspectives, whether retelling them to ourselves or others.

Home furnishings are a recurring motif in Munro’s work—she often describes the contents of a room by way of revealing character and furthering narrative while setting the scene—and one of the questions she examines in her story “Family Furnishings” is the moral price of writing fiction.  This symbolism may have its source in Munro’s early years, during which her mother expressed her longing for beautiful things in part by trading fox furs for elegant furniture and fittings that the family couldn’t afford and didn’t value (Munro, S., 155).  Often Munro will describe characters’ possessions in specific detail to illustrate their psychological and social pretensions, contrasting these social fronts with the complex, ungovernable issues and emotions that lie beneath the surface.

Munro has said that she aims to “get as close as [she] can” in her writing to “what [she] see[s] as reality—the shifting complex reality of human experience” (Thacker, 334). Whenever the protagonist or reader lands on what seems a conclusive point-of-view in a Munro story, it is soon challenged by an equal and opposite perspective.  Characters confound their own, each other’s and the readers’ expectations, setting up psychological complications and narrative tensions that feel authentic.

Particularly in the 2009 version of the story, Roy and Lea’s marriage seems a close one, even though, in both versions of the story, Roy’s wife’s family has “limited interest” in him, for he’s a seemingly useless outsider: he isn’t a blood relative, he and his wife haven’t “contributed” birth children to the clan, and he “[isn’t] like themselves” (TMH, 227, New Yorker, 46). Yet in the second version, Roy and Lea “both [feel] that they [mean] more to each other, somehow, than couples who [are] overrun with children.” (TMH, 227).

Even so, in both versions of the story, Roy needs solitude, whether he works in his shed or in the wood.  In the earlier version, when he finds himself in trouble in the bush—alone, injured and fighting for his life—his anxious, fragmented thoughts turn to his wife’s niece and to his wife herself, and he seems simultaneously struck by both his worry and love for his family, and by the general incomprehensibility and inexplicability of human relationships.  He tells himself that “[n]obody knows what anybody else is thinking about or how anybody else is feeling …. Nobody knows how others see themselves,” and it seems unclear whether this is a wholeheartedly dismayed conviction about the limited ability of human beings to connect, or whether it is partly a rationalization that he uses to ease his fear and guilt about the possibility that he may not make it out of the wood and back home to continue to contribute to his family’s well being (New Yorker, 54).

In the second take on the story, in which Roy’s wife Lea develops depression, her illness seems to make it impossible for husband and wife to connect even when they are physically together.  Before Roy has his life-endangering accident, he turns to the depressed Lea and tries to communicate his fears to her, but feels she isn’t “paying any real attention.”  He thinks to himself that she’s “[m]issing the point.  But isn’t that what wives do—and husbands probably the same—around fifty percent of the time?” (TMH, 237).

And yet, at the end of the second version, we discover that Lea—even under the lid of her depression—has understood Roy’s needs better than either he or she consciously realized.  She surprises them both when she shows up in the wood to help save him when he needs her most.  Roy, in turn, is then surprised once more—this time by his own uncomfortable mixture of emotions as he allows his wife to assist him.

In Munro’s stories, the trouble that characters get into is partly self-inflicted.  In “Wood,” Roy’s first mistake is that he “thinks that there is very little danger in going tree cutting alone if you know what you are doing” (TMH, 230; New Yorker, 47). Roy’s view of nature as a predictable, humanly subduable force has no place in Munro’s Ontarian-Gothic world, in which 19th-century homesteaders were battered and scarred—physically and psychologically—by snowstorms and disease, and where “people can take a fit like the earth takes a fit” (“Fits,” 126 ). Roy’s underestimation—or denial—of the dangers of the earthly and the psychological wildernesses will threaten his life.

The expectations that protagonists and their fellow community members have for themselves and force upon one another loom large in Munro’s fiction, and the author charts her characters’ reactions when, for better or worse, an outcome takes them by surprise.  One day, after the first snow, Roy is in the forest looking over some girdled trees that he has verbally agreed, with the farmer who owns them, to cut down.  While there, he runs into Percy, a squatter, who has heard talk that this job has been promised to someone else, and that the lumber will go to the nearby River Inn, a hotel that caters to tourists and burns a “cord [of wood] a day…for show” (TMH, 234, 236; New Yorker, 49, 51). Roy and Percy imagine the dehumanizing, wasteful “big outfit” (TMH, 235) that may put Roy out of business.  As ever, in both versions of “Wood,” Munro explores the impact of contemporary commerce on rural communities, and touches on her mystical, Wordsworth-influenced feeling about the natural countryside in which she grew up, which, she has told me in interviews, replaced religion for her in her girlhood.  Also at a young age, Munro was inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, with its unreliable narrator.  Untrustworthy characters such as Percy, and folklorish characters, such as fairies, appear in various guises in Munro’s work, simultaneously attracting and repelling, or even horrifying the protagonist, leading him through delusion—or self-delusion—to sudden insight and revelation.

Major problems in Munro’s stories often result when a minor incident blows up into a serious matter.  Vacillating between believing Percy and dismissing his story as embroidered rumor, Roy returns home, and over the course of the day he makes the second mistake that will put his life at risk: he underestimates his own value. A victim of his own lack of confidence, he allows his conversation with this gossip to overtake his imagination.  Perhaps “Wood” here can be read as “Would”—as if Roy’s own self-doubt were holding him back from achieving his desired goal.  Convinced, without any outside confirmation, that he isn’t the chosen one, that he has lost the job to some company with which he can’t compete, he rushes to the bush the next day to beat his competitor to the take.

A Munrovian character’s life can change suddenly in a geographical setting that mirrors the psychological action taking place.  After parking his truck on the trail leading into the forest, Roy walks hurriedly toward the trees, muttering aloud to himself, imagining he is confronting his rival, and paying no heed to the lightly falling snow and the slippery leaves on the complex terrain underfoot.  In his distracted condition, he contemplates the untamed bush.   He remembers having recently read that the roughness of the wood’s floor dates back to just after the Ice Age, when “ice formed between layers of earth and pushed it up into odd humps….Where the land has not been cleared and worked the humps remain.”  But emotionally unbalanced as he is, he makes no connection between this memory and his present danger; he can’t hear his own subconscious voice warning him about the uncanny, Gothic wilds that surround him physically and psychologically (TMH, 238-9; slightly different in New Yorker, 52).

What happens to Roy now is the most ordinary and yet the most unbelievable thing, something that might happen to a “daydreamer” or a tourist, but hardly to one so experienced in the bush: he “steps carelessly,” then skids in the snow, plunges through brush, and falls, breaking his ankle (TMH, 239; New Yorker, 52-3). He manages to hold his saw at a distance from his body as he goes down, but he hurts himself when he flings his ax away; its handle hits the knee of his twisted leg.  Finding that he can’t walk or even stand up, “[h]e lets himself down as easily as he can and hauls himself around into the track of his bootprints, which are now filling with snow” (TMH, 240; slightly different in New Yorker, 53).

Roy has been crippling himself throughout the story; through his low self-image; through his insistence that nature is a controllable universe; through his deafness to his own intuition.  Munro’s protagonists often have to feel their way through their difficulties before they can understand them rationally.  Paradoxically, Roy’s shortcomings provide him with the complication that leads him to opportunity: forced to abandon his tools, and with heightened awareness of the dangers and mysteries of the bush, he begins to trust his wits, his instincts, and his imagination as he crawls through thickening snow, across the freezing forest floor and up a steep bank toward his truck (TMH, 240-1; New Yorker, 53-54). If he survives his humbling journey, perhaps reflecting on it later will guide him to a more complex, less self-deceptive appreciation of reality.  In his metaphoric dimension as an artist, perhaps his experience will lead him to find his voice.

The tension between loyalty to family members and the desire to pursue individual fulfillment tugs at Munro’s protagonists as surely it has at the author herself in the course of her life.  During her teenage years, Munro, already writing seriously, helped care for her mother, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease.  Her ticket to college came in the form of a two-year scholarship, and when that ran out, she promptly married, and had children in the 1950’s, when she felt societal pressure to put aside her writing and focus exclusively on her domestic roles.  Sheila Munro, the author’s eldest daughter, tells of her mother’s approach to writing while raising a young family in North Vancouver:

I think housework and writing have always coexisted for her in a kind of uneasy alliance, the one balancing the other….The room in which she wrote Lives of Girls and Women was a laundry room, and her typewriter was surrounded by a washer, a dryer, and an ironing board….I might find her reclining on the couch writing in one of her spiral notebooks when I came home from school, or scribbling away at the kitchen table when I came downstairs for breakfast.  She’d always put the notebook away without skipping a beat, in the same way that Jane Austen put her embroidery frame over her writing whenever someone came into the room. You’d think she wasn’t doing anything more important than making up a grocery list. (Munro, S., 28-9)

Although her characters often seem burdened by their domestic responsibilities to others throughout Munro's fiction, at the same time, particularly in her collection Too Much Happiness, protagonists may find personal salvation through the chance to be useful to others in practical ways—especially if they can somehow save another human being’s life.

In “Working for a Living,” a character reminiscent of Munro’s father tells his daughter of a life-endangering experience he had while heading home in a blizzard from his night job.  Caught in a snowdrift, unable at first to move his legs, he saved himself by recalling his family members—the young, the old, the sick—as well as the financial debt he would leave behind if he died; and these thoughts gave him strength to survive:

…[H]e pulled one leg out of the snow, and then the other: he got out of that drift and then there were no more drifts quite so deep, and before long he was in the shelter of the windbreak of pine trees that he himself had planted the year that [his daughter] was born.  He got home.

His daughter muses, “[D]idn’t he think of himself…didn’t he struggle for his own self?.... Was his life now something only other people had a use for?” (“Working for a Living,” 165-166).

In the first version of “Wood,” Roy worries about and financially assists his wife’s niece, whom the couple raised for nine years.  Now grown, she has five children and an unsteadily employed husband, a truck driver, whom Roy and his wife “didn’t even know she knew,” until she “quit” school to marry him (New Yorker, 48). In the second rendering of the story, when his wife slips into depression, Roy is “patient with this grave, listless woman who sometimes waves her hand in front of her face as if she is bothered by cobwebs or has got stuck in a nest of brambles” (TMH, 228).

Later, in both takes on the story, following his initial shock after falling and injuring himself in the bush, Roy turns to thoughts of his family members and his concern for their welfare seems to fortify him.  In the second version of “Wood:”

For some reason he thinks of [his wife’s niece], in her unbecoming red ski jacket and decides that her life is her life, there is not much use worrying about it.  And he thinks of his wife, pretending to laugh at the television.  Her quietness.  At least she’s fed and warm, she isn’t some refugee shuffling along the roads.  Worse things happen, he thinks.  Worse things.

He starts up the bank….He keeps going; he grits his teeth as if that will keep him from sliding back; he grabs at any exposed root or halfway-sturdy stem that he can see. (TMH, 241-2)

Also in the second version of “Wood,” it is Lea’s desire to find and protect Roy at the story’s end that lifts her out of her debilitating depression and enables her to drive into the bush in a truck, which, to the best of Roy’s knowledge, she has never before driven.  In fact, she stopped driving entirely after her illness began—but now she feels “driven” to support her husband physically and emotionally (TMH, 243).

It was only a few years after her father’s death, at forty-nine, that Alice Munro published her first version of “Wood” in The New Yorker.  The second version appeared, in Too Much Happiness, two years before her eightieth birthday.  The writer of the first is well into middle age; the writer of the second is old—and the protagonist’s thoughts about his own mortality have changed accordingly.

Near the end of the first version of the story, once he believes he will survive his ordeal, Roy realizes that Percy has been mistaken about the identity of the winner of the contract, whom he had vaguely remembered as being a carpenter, or a painter, or a paperhanger (New Yorker, 49). “The truth is that the paperhanger, the decorator, the housepainter doesn’t exist….It is Roy himself.  Not a housepainter—a sign painter” (New Yorker, 54). With this, it seems that Roy is able to acknowledge to himself that in addition to being a practical man, he is an artist.  As it turns out, the rumor that undermined Roy’s confidence was just a story within the larger story of “Wood”—and an example of how Munro uses both shifting points-of-view and story structure to explore her questioning of the nature of reality.  Reassured on this point, Roy’s “selective” memory “manages to turn everything to good account;” turning the “foolishness of the accident” into the “triumph” of a “successful crawl” toward the truck (New Yorker, 54). Roy convinces himself that he is finally “safe”—which is the last word in the first version of the story and an ironic promise that evil lurks in the midst of familiar, day-to-day existence.  The story ends with Roy still far from secure, yet, in middle age, perhaps he can still convince himself that he will be able to control his destiny.

In this earlier “Wood,” Roy’s wife, here named Lila, is a supporting character, who comes into her own in the 2009 version of the story, which explores the ways people do or don’t go on with their lives when they have lost the person or the situation they thought they couldn’t live without. Roy’s wife is described as an “easygoing,” capable, sociable woman in both versions of the story (TMH, 226-7; New Yorker, 46). But in the second take on the story, a winter’s “almost steady flu and bronchitis” leave her, now named Lea, exhausted, nervous, apathetic, and asocial (TMH, 228). A doctor gives her pills, her sister takes her for an expensive consultation with a holistic medicine practitioner, and her niece takes her to a reflexologist for treatment.  Yet nothing pulls Lea out of her slump.

Lea’s experience may have a biographical precedent in Munro’s life.  When the author was nearing thirty, at the end of the 1950’s, she felt overwhelmed by trying to juggle her familial roles with her writing.  She was still receiving rejections of her stories and felt commercial pressure to write a novel, which went against her creative instincts. Munro told her daughter, “I didn’t feel anything good was coming from me.  I felt my own gift hadn’t developed and maybe wouldn’t.”  Finding it increasingly hard either to write or do housework, Munro spent much of the day “in a morose state of inactivity,” until she stopped writing altogether, developed an ulcer and panic attacks, and was prescribed tranquilizers (Munro, S., 86-88).

Munro’s daughter Sheila believes her mother was being silenced by the “censoring” expectations of women writers; that she had to learn to resist the pressure to “tell the nice, conventional, moral story and, in its place, how to tell the truth of her experience as a woman” (Munro, S., 90). When, in the early 1960’s, Munro discovered how to use her personal material to achieve this aim, she broke through her writer’s block.

At the climax of both versions of  “Wood,” as Roy wonders whether he will survive or die alone in the wood, a “large bird rises out of the bush.”  The “sign painter” of the first version, and the “upholsterer and refinisher of furniture” of the second, “thinks it’s a hawk, but it could be a buzzard.”  In the 1980 version he thinks, “[i]f it’s a buzzard, it will have its eye on him, but he’ll have it fooled” (New Yorker, 54). Then he becomes distracted, and never returns to this question.  In the 2009 version, Roy manages no such self-delusion.  He wonders:

If it’s a buzzard will it have its eye on him, thinking it’s in luck now, seeing he’s hurt?

He waits to see it circle back, so he can tell what it is by the manner of its flight and its wings….[I]t is a buzzard. (TMH, 243)

Roy knows that loss and even death may be close at hand—but with this truth comes compensation and solace.  When, in the later version, he finally reaches level ground and can see his truck ahead, he sees Lea at the wheel.  She seems, when she greets him, restored to her old self.  Or perhaps she has become a new version of herself—unaware that she has gone through a period of depressive change, or that she stopped driving her car during her illness, or that, to Roy’s knowledge, she has never driven the truck.  As she skillfully maneuvers the truck into the turnaround, Roy senses “(s)ome loss fogging up this gain” of his wife’s vitality” (TMH, 245). Feeling somewhat overcome by a “warm wooziness,” (TMH, 246) he looks at the bush with new eyes, as an injured passenger seated next to a fully functioning driver. He notices:

[h]ow tangled up in itself [the wood] is, how dense and secret.  It’s not a matter of one tree after another, it’s all the trees together, aiding and abetting one another and weaving into one thing.  A transformation, behind your back. (TMH, 246)

He tries to remember another name for the  wood, but the precise word eludes him.  Again we see Munro working with an issue of memory: the complex interplay between a biological phenomenon, such as a “senior moment,” and our unconscious desires—some psychological reason that we may wish to forget something.

Finally, the literary-sounding word that Roy has been searching for comes to him at the end of the second version of Munro’s story:

Forest.  That’s the word.  Not a strange word at all but one he has possibly never used.  A formality about it that he would usually back away from.

“The Deserted Forest,” he says, as if that put the cap on something (TMH, 246).

Roy speaks as if he were putting the title on his own story.  Is the “forest” here Roy’s psyche?  If so, what has abandoned Roy’s mind?  His control over his own body, for one thing.  Will his creative inspiration and solitary ambition be diminished in the wake of this desertion?  And if so, is it possible he has “deserted” it and that he may be relieved to put it behind him?

In both versions of “Wood,” Roy is reduced to crawling along the forest floor, unsure about whether he will escape the wood alive. In the first version of the story, we can believe that Roy may make it out of the wood alone.  In the second version, Lea’s rescue of Roy suggests that he needs help now.  Does this reaffirm, in spite of his losses, that the newly significant connection between Roy and Lea is more positive than not?  It seems we are left—as we are so often in Munro’s fiction—on a note of ambivalence and uncertainty.

Ambiguity is a hallmark of Munro’s endings; she has told me in an interview that she writes because “[she wants] to get a feeling of mystery or surprise.  Not a mystery that finishes [the reader] off, but something that makes the character or reader wonder” (VQR 2006). At the end of a Munro story, readers are aware that things could turn out in a variety of ways for the characters.

Munro has often said, after publishing a new collection of stories—especially in recent years—that she won’t write another; that she has used up her material; that she would like to lead a more manageable life.  Fortunately for her readers, her 14th book is due out in the fall of 2012.


Lisa Dickler Awano has interviewed and profiled Alice Munro for The Virginia Quarterly Review and Vancouver Sun and been interviewed about Munro's work on national radio.  Other work has aired on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered and appeared in The New York Quarterly and Chicago Review.  Awano also organizes readings at The National Arts Club in New York City.

The 2009 version of "Wood," reprinted in The New Haven Review, and the full texts of Awano's interviews with Munro in NHR and in The Virginia Quarterly Review can be found by clicking the links below.



Awano, Lisa Dickler. “Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness,” Virginia Quarterly Review, October 22, 2010.  Book review http://www.vqronline.org/blog/2010/10/22/alice-munros-too-much-happiness/

Awano, Lisa Dickler, ed. “Appreciations of Alice Munro,” Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2006, p. 91-107.  Interviews with certain of Munro's peers, among them Margaret Atwood, Russell Banks, Michael Cunningham, and others, presented as first-person essays. http://www.vqronline.org/articles/2006/summer/awano-munro/

Awano, Lisa Dickler. “An Interview with Alice Munro,” Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2006.  Interview about The View from Castle Rock and the craft of writing.  http://www.vqronline.org/webexclusive/2006/06/11/awano-interview-munro/

Awano, Lisa Dickler. “An Interview with Alice Munro,” Virginia Quarterly Review, October 22, 2010.  Interview about Too Much Happiness, and the craft of writing.  http://www.vqronline.org/blog/2010/10/22/an-interview-with-alice-munro/

Awano, Lisa Dickler. “The Tremendous Importance of Ordinary Events: An Interview with Alice Munro about two versions of “Wood,” New Haven Review Issue 009 (Winter 2011), p. 46-67. http://www.newhavenreview.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/NHR-9-Awano.pdf

Munro, Alice. “Fits,” The Progress of Love. Vintage, 1985-6.

Munro, Alice. “Wood,” 2009 version, reprinted in New Haven Review Issue 009 (Winter 2011), 68-89. http://www.newhavenreview.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/NHR-9-Munro.pdf

Munro, Alice. “Wood,” The New Yorker, November 24, 1980, 46-54.

Munro, Alice. “Wood,” Too Much Happiness. Knopf, 2009, 225-246.

Munro, Alice. “Working for a Living,” The View from Castle Rock. Knopf, 2006.

Munro, Sheila. Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing Up with Alice Munro. A Douglas Gibson Book. McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 2001.

Thacker, Robert. Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives: A Biography. A Douglas Gibson Book. McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 2005.

The Anatomy of Harpo Marx


by Wayne Koestenbaum

UC Press, 2012

336 pages


It's no secret that scholarly books on cinema can be deadening, and any play-by-play of 13 movie comedies sanctioned by a university press might reasonably seem like one to avoid. Not so The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, from the poet and cultural critic Wayne Koestenbaum, and published by UC Press, which has the nerve not to be just another impersonal, theory-glazed boredom generator. Instead it's a zesty and deeply literate joy to read.

Just as his previous nonfiction work, Humiliation, seemed like an apotheosis of new literary possibility in the age of overshare, so Koestenbaum's new book reinvigorates film studies. There's no special trick to it, really, just his own eruditely intimate way of seeing in the silent Marx brother a profound physical presence.

"As Andy Warhol filmed a man sleeping, and called it Sleep," Koestenbaum writes, "I want to commit media-heist, to steal a man from his native silence and transplant him into words, if only for the pleasure of taking illusory possession of a physical self-sureness that can never be mine." By casting his project in such confessional terms, Koestenbaum makes a sort of pact with subject and reader alike. He proceeds not just as an insightful scholar but also as a brainy, randy, vulnerable flirt.

Unpacking the famous screen comedian's nonverbal lyricism is of course a worthy academic undertaking, and Koestenbaum's subjective musings neatly disguise his rigor. It's his alertness to "foreshadowings that appear when we view earlier artifacts in hindsight" that allows Koestenbaum to coin the phrase "Kristallnacht Preview" for a given moment of 1933's Duck Soup, in which "Harpo apprehends catastrophe." Later, he writes, "I will lean on the Nazi theme; Harpo leans on it too. Harpo was a comic genius before the Third Reich came along, but the Third Reich gave Harpo's anarchy extra pointedness." And of course those retrospective foreshadowings continue into subsequent epochs; in 1937's A Day at the Races, for instance, "he has the traumatized expression of Jackie Kennedy on Air Force One as LBJ is sworn into the presidency."

Obviously that analysis may be subject to debate; what matters most is the peculiar and palpable force of Koestenbaum's investment -- the "ecstatic clarity" to be had from studying a screen persona through one's own history-sharpened lens. Diaristic and deceptively digressive, The Anatomy of Harpo Marx becomes a secondary celebration of context itself. Yet it never loses sight of the endlessly watchable man, and the endlessly meaningful mannerisms, in all those movies.

If Koestenbaum seems like exactly the right writer for this job, it's as much for the refinement of his appreciation as for his recognition of what makes something appreciation-worthy to begin with. As he rightly puts it, "Harpo beams upward at you, whoever you are."

Geoff Dyer: Zoning In


Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room

by Geoff Dyer

Pantheon, 2012

240 pages


Last spring, an interviewer asked the British writer Geoff Dyer which movie he would choose to live inside. In retrospect that seems like a leading question; obviously Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker was the only possible answer.

Stalker is a long, slow, metaphysical Russian film from 1979. (“Andrei Tarkovsky” in Russian means “long, slow, metaphysical, film.”) It involves three men on a trip to a forbidden place, each for private personal reasons. Stalker is the name of the character who leads expeditions to this place -- a Room, inside a Zone -- where the deepest of desires are said to get fulfilled.

Today, what’s so special about the film, aside from it being a great cine-poet’s mesmerizing road movie of the Soviet twilight, is the fact that Geoff Dyer has written a book about it. Dyer is one of those rare geniuses who writes well about everything because he always winds up writing about himself. The navel into which he gazes is the world’s as well as his own. Thus is he, somehow, very possibly the only English-speaking person alive who can hold forth at length on Tarkovsky without boring the hell out of you.

Zona, the newest of Dyer’s nimble nonfiction category-busters, describes itself as “A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room.” It is that, and also an essay on wish fulfillment, the management of time, and the variable likelihood of perception-expanding cinema, among other art forms, to exist in our distraction-addled lives.

“At first there can be a friction between our expectations of time and Tarkovsky time,” Dyer writes, “and this friction is increasing in the twenty-first century as we move further and further away from Tarkovsky time toward moron time in which nothing can last -- and no one can concentrate on anything -- longer than about two seconds. Soon people will not be able to watch films like Stalker or to read Henry James because they will not have the concentration to get from one interminable scene or sentence to the next. The time I might have been able to read late-period Henry James has passed, and because I have not read late-period Henry James I am in no position to say what harm has been done to my sensibility by not having done so. But I do know that if I had not seen Stalker in my early twenties my responsiveness to the world would have been radically diminished.”

In short, Zona is a characteristically digressive memoir of what this one movie has meant to this one man, which turns out to be a lot. (Meanwhile a whole alphabet of other art-house darlings -- Antonioni, Buñuel, the Coen brothers -- come in for parenthetical skewering.) Dyer’s carefully articulated stake in Stalker, one asymptotic quest to comprehend another, proves an invigorating counterforce, if not an antidote, to the very atrophy of attention he laments. The book is not long, but it is one in which several pages may pass with footnotes taking up more surface area than the body of the main text. Dyer sees it as “a catalogue or compendium of proposals for potentially interesting studies,” and he’s right about that, and nobody these days can get away with such a book in quite the way he can. Which is not to say it’s unprecedented. Writing in defense of writers, like himself, who offer commentary “without seeking to disguise the vagaries of their nature, their lapses of taste and the contingency of their own experiences,” Dyer speaks to and for the spirit of the original essayist, Montaigne.

And of course Dyer is to Zona as Tarkovsky is to Stalker: the contriver of a work through which he explores himself. Contriver, that is, as gainfully apart from originator; true, only Dyer could write this book, but not without Tarkovsky’s film, just as only Tarkovsky could make something “synonymous both with cinema’s claims to high art and a test of the viewer’s ability to appreciate it as such,” but not without Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s novel Roadside Picnic to inspire him.

“Would we regard this landscape of fields, abandoned cars, tilted telegraph poles and trees as beautiful without Tarkovsky?” Dyer asks. “And could it have been brought into existence by any medium other than film?” There’s a beauty, too, in the asking, and a satisfaction from seeing that beauty brought into existence by this particular asker.

It helps that the intensity of his attention is not attenuating. Tarkovsky’s film is easy to recognize in Dyer’s prose, even for the reader who has never seen it. Here a character “has the knack of imbuing the simplest task with grudge,” there a color scheme exudes “a kind of submonochrome in which the spectrum has been so compressed that it might turn out to be a source of energy, like oil and almost as dark, but with a gold sheen too.” Everywhere, “the most distinctive feature of Tarkovsky’s art: the sense of beauty as force.” And the best way to grasp the movie’s essential slowness is simply to luxuriate in Dyer’s insanely companionable zeal.

In his nonfiction especially, Dyer’s education -- autodidact by way of Oxford -- seems useful; he seems to have seen and read everything, deeply. His habit is to refer unabashedly back to earlier gleanings. “John Updike reckoned that America was a vast conspiracy to make people happy,” Dyer writes, fortifying his own speculations about Soviet unhappiness. Or: “The light, which has been silvery and dank, glows gradually golden and warm, then fades, Turrell-ishly, to dank and silver again.” If you haven’t yet had a go at Stalker, you can look forward to recognizing that highly Tarkovsky-ish moment, here so Dyer-ishly described, the very instant you see it.

The Dyer Name Drop could be a cocktail. It is hard to get right. Even he occasionally flubs the proportions, making his own literacy seem merely like compulsive indexing. Mostly, though, it goes down very smoothly, giving pleasure and encouragement. Rather than torture his references into submission, he lives in them, inviting frequent reader visits. Writing on couture for Vogue, for example, Dyer has handy an observation John Cheever made about Persian carpets. That must be because he did that great piece on Cheever’s journals, the reader thinks, already feeling quite at home and a little tipsy.

Writing on Tarkovsky for the hell of it means bringing on a serious buzz: “Stalker is framed against a green so dark it is almost black -- what Conrad, with his irresistible urge to over-egg any and all puddings, would have called an impenetrable darkness. This darkness makes Stalker’s face and blue eyes burn more brightly as he speaks. With what? With the intensity of his belief, but also -- and it is this which distinguishes him from jihadists and born-again Christians  -- with the intensity of his despair. The Zone is not simply a source of solace, the heart of Marx’s heartless world, it is a source of torment, a system of traps that constantly tests, teases and threatens not just his clients but Stalker himself.”

It’s tempting to keep quoting because here Dyer is only a few sentences away from bringing Werner Herzog into the huddle, but one must learn to pace oneself.

Historically, Stalker was a beleaguered beast, heavily rewritten, reshot, and at one point relocated to just downriver of a chemical plant whose toxicity may later have caused the filmmaker’s fatal cancer. Tarkovsky also had a heart attack during postproduction, and was prone, as Dyer gently puts it, to “megalomaniacal uncertainties.”

Aren’t we all? One of the real joys of reading Zona, thanks to its peculiar candor, is the privilege of picking up on how even Dyer’s most enthused engagement still can feel like fidgety misgiving. Another member of Tarkovsky’s trio is a washed-up writer seeking inspiration. “Maybe by going to the Zone he’ll be rejuvenated,” Dyer writes. “Man, I know how he feels. I could do with a piece of that action myself. I mean, do you think I would be spending my time summarizing the action of a film almost devoid of action -- not frame by frame, perhaps, but certainly take by take -- if I was capable of writing anything else? In my way I am going to the Room -- following these three to the Room -- to save myself.”

Dyer’s own stalkers surely will have noticed Stalker references piling up in his previous writings, and maybe they felt a whole book coming on. But then, who ever knows? He’s flighty. One of Dyer’s earlier books is called Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It. Another, Out of Sheer Rage, is a biography of D.H. Lawrence by an author who couldn’t be bothered to do it. (Of course, in the end, he did. Sort of.) One essay in Dyer’s recent collection, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, extemporized a proto-proposal for yet another book, Great Pastries of the World: A Personal View. Was that just a quip, or a promise?

"How's East Haven?" "Sucks."

The movie Ocean's Twelve, which came out in 2004, is one of my favorite movies of the last ten years. (Make of that what you will.) I don't know how many times I've watched it -- certainly a dozen, which seems right and just. Part of my affection for the movie stems from a little detail at the beginning of the movie. We see Danny Ocean (George Clooney) talking to a bank employee, talking about safe deposit boxes and retirement funds, and a caption flits onto the screen: East Haven, Connecticut. The moment I saw this, my first thought was: Why would a guy like Danny Ocean be in East Haven, Connecticut? And why does the shot of him leaving the bank and strolling through the center of town, then dumping his flowers into the trash so he can rush back to his wife, Tess, show a quaint, charming, subtly-decorated New England town which bears no resemblance to East Haven, Connecticut? He’s not in any East Haven I’ve ever seen; he’s in Guilford. He’s in Litchfield. He’s somewhere in Connecticut, sure -- but it sure as hell isn’t East Haven. I've discussed this with people who are more capable of nuanced thought than I. My original theory was, "Whoever wrote the movie (George Nolfi) thinks that all of Connecticut is like Westport, and has no idea that East Haven is just this blue collar town where rich people do not go to retire, where art curators are not going to redecorate their beach house and quibble with the housepainters about how much brown to add to the white paint." That it was a mistake borne out of ignorance of the true cultural geography of Connecticut.

But a cooler head suggests that perhaps the explanation is more complicated but also more mundane: that the screenwriter knew what he was doing when he wrote "East Haven, Connecticut," but that the director (Steven Soderbergh) didn't know what was envisioned by Nolfi when he went to film, and so, that segment of the movie wound up being the stereotypical "Connecticut" that people are used to in Hollywood product (with the exception of Mystic Pizza, which does a pretty good job of depicting working class life in Mystic -- at least, it LOOKS like Mystic, and not Westport. Or Guilford). The cooler head suggests that perhaps a town like East Haven would actually be an excellent place for Danny Ocean to hide out: claiming he’s a retired high school basketball coach, he’d have a chance to just blend into the community.

But here's what I'm having fun thinking about now: how lots of people who watch that movie from now on will see that little line of text -- East Haven, Connecticut -- and it's gonna mean something different now because of this hullabaloo with the mayor and tacos and the cops who've been harassing the Latinos who've been making East Haven their homes for the last 20 odd years.

When you factor in Ocean’s pseudonym, which he takes on to blend in to the charming little community of East Haven, is Diaz, the whole thing just becomes more comical. Wrong ethnic group to pick, it seems, if you're trying to sketch a character who's just trying to blend in. But maybe someone knew this would be a problem. When Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) asks Ocean, “How’s East Haven?” Ocean doesn’t skip a beat. “Sucks,” he says. So perhaps the screenwriter knew something about the real East Haven after all?

I am a sucker for bloopers -- you know, the gag reels they tack onto DVDs as “extras” off the main menu -- and it seems to me that more than ever, those opening scenes of “Ocean’s Twelve” are just one giant blooper. Mr. and Mrs. Diaz, you really picked the wrong place to go if you were trying to escape the attention of local police. Fortunately, in your cases, though, it was just a movie.