The Rough Draft

This summer I finished the rough draft of a novel I’ve been mulling over for several years.  It felt good to have an entire draft completed.  It was better than I was afraid it would be, but worse than I’d hoped it would be.  Now, all I have to do is revise and edit.  That I can do.  I could probably revise and edit for years.  And years.  Anything’s better than finally saying, okay, this is it.  This is my best effort.  I’m ready to be judged.  The rough draft has been sitting in a tatty file folder on my ottoman for about three weeks now.   The days go by, and the pile of newspapers, sketch pads, half read books and paper plates with sandwich crumbs waxes and wanes on top of the folder, hiding, then revealing, then hiding again my secret:  I may never complete my novel.

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And Letters: Review of The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

I looked forward to reading Mohsin Hamid’s second novel published in 2007, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, having read and enjoyed his first novel, Moth Smoke.  What struck me with Moth Smoke was Hamid’s confidence as a writer.  Reading Moth Smoke never gave me that slight uneasiness that results from reading a new writer who hasn’t quite grown into their writing shoes.  With a more experienced writer, in contrast, you can walk to your shelf and pull off any novel by say, an Ann Patchett or a John Irving,  comfortable in knowing you are in capable storytelling hands.  Hamid is such a novelist.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist exudes the same confidence as Moth Smoke. Which is not to say that Hamid over-reaches or is shy about using unconventional storytelling techniques.  This short -184 pages- novel consists entirely of one side of a conversation between the Pakistani narrator and an American stranger over the course of one evening in a cafe in Lahore.

The tension and uneasiness that lies between all things Pakistani and all things American under-girds The Reluctant Fundamentalist as it did in Moth Smoke. Yet, the conversation is not an angry rant or confrontation.  The narrator, Changez, tells the American stranger of his  experience of being a Princeton-educated Pakistani man in New York with a promising career in a prestigious American firm.  While Changez  always feels culturally different from most of his American colleagues and friends, the benefits of his lifestyle seem to him worth any compromises.  His emotional roller coaster of angst, dissatisfaction, and guilt only begins after he has fallen in love with a troubled American young woman who cannot love him back.

As an older and wiser Changez relates his saga to the American stranger in a Lahore cafe, he acknowledges the American’s discomfort, wariness and suspicions, and attempts to allay the man’s fears. Yet, despite Changez’s likableness, the accessibility of his story, one can’t help feel the creepiness and danger inherent in the c conversation.  I vacillated between feeling compassion for Changez and scanning for veiled threats between the lines.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the story of lost love, broken hearts, and the guilt that accompanies the lust for success and money.  It is about the cultural abyss between the haves and the have-nots and the tidal pull of patriotism and loyalty.    No matter how well we can identify with this Middle Eastern man’s feelings and experience, we are still left with “us” v. “them”.  No matter how much we like Changez, like the American stranger, we can never let down our guard.  But, then, isn’t that where bigotry begins?  Fear becomes an excuse for suspicion, suspicion breeds contempt, and contempt precludes any chance of connection.

Like Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is more than a story.   It’s a guided meditation.  Hamid’s skillful storytelling allows us a safe space in which to examine thoughts and feelings that we otherwise might not acknowledge even to ourselves.

And Letters: Review of Dancing For Degas by Kathryn Wagner

Degas, Dance Class

As a little girl and ballet student, the iconic paintings of ballet dancers in unguarded moments backstage were as familiar to me as my posters of teen idol Bobby Sherman.   Of course, not many readers will remember Bobby Sherman, while Degas’ paintings of dancers endure.  To my young eyes, the dancers in the paintings were the epitome of grace and beauty and therefore had to be living exotic and romantic lives.  Kathryn Wagner, in her first novel, Dancing for Degas, satisfies every little ballerina’s curiosity by going beyond the canvas into the lives of Degas’ models.

Dancing for Degas is a fictionalized account of a young woman, Alexandrie, from a desperately poor farm family who goes to Paris to be a ballerina for the Paris Opera Ballet.  The ballet company is, however, an elegant front for a high-class brothel.  In Wagner’s story, wealthy patrons of the ballet – men of money and power – gain backstage access, including entrance to post-performance parties where alliances between the dancers and the patrons were forged.  If a ballerina remained a virgin, she could aspire to be made a mistress of a patron.  If she carelessly lost her virginity and failed to snag an exclusive arrangement, at age 25 the dancer was forced to become a prostitute.

Alexandrie is fascinated by Degas and his constant sketching at the ballet.  She catches the eye of Degas and becomes one of his primary models for his series of dancer paintings.  Alexandrie is archetype strong and  intelligent female trapped in a male-dominated world.  She finds Degas mercurial and mysterious.  He is one of the few men in the ballerina’s circle who appreciates her intelligence.  At heart, Dancing with Degas is less about the painter or the ballerinas and more of a girl-meets-boy love story.   It’s a fun read, but should only be a starting point for a closer look into the life of the Paris Opera Ballet and the paintings of Degas.  The real story is even more fascination.

Le Ballet de l’Opera national de Paris was established in 1661 by French King Louis XIV – who actually danced with the ballet from time to time.  In Degas’ day, the Ballet was an important part of the cultural life in Paris.  It is true that many of the dancers at the Paris Opera Ballet came from poor, working class families.  Degas himself wrote, “It is among the common people that you find grace.” [i]

The dancers began training with the Opera at the age of 6, unlike Alexandrie who came as a teenager.  These Opera “petit rats” trained under the stern hand of the Ballet Master.  The Paris Opera Ballet was where “some of the city’s poorest young girls struggled to become the faries, nymphs and queens of the stage.”  [ii]

Edgar Degas, Before the Ballet, 1890/1892, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection 1942.9.19

But, was the ballet a front for a brothel?   It was true that wealthy male patrons – called abonnes — had unusual access to the dancers.  If you look closely at some of the paintings, you can see these men in the background.   The abonnes often became “protectors” of the dancers.  The wealthy abonnes “lurked in the foyers, flirted with the dancers in the wings and laid siege to their dressing” rooms.”[iii]

Was Degas an abonnes? Actually, Degas had to enlist the help of influential friends to gain backstage access to the ballerinas.  However, he did become an abonne later in his life.[iv] At one point in his fascination with the ballet, Degas focused his attention on the abonnes. He did some illustrations for a writer’s satirical book about “the often sordid affairs of young dancers, their mothers and the abonnés” but the book was never published.

Edgar Degas, Dancers Backstage, 1876/1883, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection 1970.17.25

Once he gained access to classrooms and behind stage, Degas did more than 1500 pieces of the Paris Opera Ballet dancers.  Over half were of dancers backstage or at rehearsal in unguarded poses and at rest.  He focused on the natural cycle of work and rest.  He admired the athleticism and controlled movement of the dancers and sought to depict the dancers’ potential movement, held in tension.[v]

In 1875, after the original Paris opera house burned, the Palais Garnier, became the new home of the ballet.  Here, Degas regularly sketched the dancers.  One ballerina later recalled that he “used to stand at the top or bottom of the many staircases . . . drawing the dancers as they rushed up and down.”[vi]

Sometimes Degas made “notes on his drawings, criticizing a dancer’s balance, or the placement of a leg. On one sketch he jotted down a teacher’s comment about a student’s awkwardness: ‘She looks like a dog pissing.'”  [vii]

But Degas made even more drawings in his studio.  He paid the young ballet students (called “petit rats“) and more experienced ballerinas to pose.  Once, an inspector from the police morals unit came to the studio and demanded to know “why so many little girls were coming and going.”  [viii]

In Dancing for Degas, the painter was moody and prone to anger.  But, the real Degas enjoyed spending time with the dancers, who shared their gossip with the painter as they posed. [ix] As in Wagner’s book, Degas’ brother, Achille did have an affair with a ballerina.  But, there is no evidence, though, that Degas had such an affair.  He did have women friends, including women artist like Mary Cassatt, but some considered him a misogynist.   As portrayed by Wagner, Degas never married because he believed a marriage would interfere with his work.

Degas’ sculpture “Little Dancer” created particular controversy.  His model was fourteen-year old ballet student named Marie van Goethem.  Marie and her three sisters were training to become ballerinas.  Marie rose fast in the ballet; she progressed from a petit rat to the corps de ballet by the time she was fifteen, just after Degas completed the sculpture.   Unfortunately for Marie, she was fired from the ballet a couple of years later for excessive absences.  Marie’s mother, a widow, was a laundress and is said to have prostituted her daughters.  A newspaper article in 1882 claimed that Marie was a regular at disreputable cafes.   Then, Marie faded from site, and we don’t know what eventually happened to her.[x]

The Paris Opera Ballet is still going strong – and quite reputable.  Ballerinas still train at the Opera’s ballet school beginning at the age of sixteen.  At their website, you can take a virtual tour of the Palais Garnier, where the Degas roamed the halls observing the dancers.  Paris Opera Ballet:  http://www.operadeparis.fr/cns11/live/onp/L_Opera/L_Opera_de_Paris/histoire_de_l_Opera.php?lang=en


[i] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/degas-dancers.html

[ii] ibid

[iii] http://www.nga.gov/feature/artnation/degas/index.shtm

[iv] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/degas-dancers.html?c=y&page=2#ixzz0kcTmMNqJ

[v] http://www.nga.gov/feature/artnation/degas/index.shtm)

[vi] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/degas-dancers.html?c=y&page=1#ixzz0kcTUWXzY

[vii] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/degas-dancers.html?c=y&page=1#ixzz0kcTUWX

[viii] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/degas-dancers.html?c=y&page=1#ixzz0kcTUWXzY

[ix] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/degas-dancers.html?c=y&page=1#ixzz0kcTUWXzY

[x] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/degas-dancers.html?c=y&page=3#ixzz0kcUOovOm

And Letters — Review of Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid

Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid brackets his first novel, Moth Smoke, with the story of Aurengzeb, the brutal ruler of the Mughal Empire. On his deathbed, he regrets his life of cruelty and tells his sons not to follow his example. But it was too late; the sons had already inherited their father’s fighting spirit.

Against this ancient canvas, Hamid tells a story of modern Pakistan, rich with corruption, drugs, and privilege. Daru Shezad is a restless, bored banker who looses his job and spirals downward from there, sleeping with his best friend’s wife and wading ever deeper into criminal activities to support himself.

I knew the story would be dark when, early in the book, Daru drives the roads of Lahore on the way to visit a friend he’s not seen in a long time. He drives with his knee as he empties the tobacco from a cigarette and fills it back up with hash. I could not forget years of seeing news coverage of car bombs exploding in Middle Eastern countries. Daru’s elaborate cigarette choreography was ominous. Didn’t he know he lived in a dangerous place? The answer to that question is, not really.

The title, Moth Smoke, comes from a game Daru makes up involving a moth, a flaming candle, and a tennis racket. Like the moth who can’t help but fly close to the flame, Daru cannot see his own reckless behavior. The game mirrors his accelerating downward spiral. Daru isn’t an admirable man, or even a likable one, but he is disarmingly clueless as to his flaws. For instance, while he fiercely resents not quite ranking with the jet set, he sees nothing wrong with physically and verbally abusing his young house servant, refusing to pay his salary for weeks on end.

Despite his modern lifestyle, he is still tied fast to the ancient tradition of class. Hamid neither glorifies nor judges modern Pakistan and there’s no sentimentality for tradition. In Lahore, as in other cities of the world, people get jobs, lose jobs, go to parties, and fall in love, and betray friends. In Moth Smoke, though, it takes place in the shadow of Pakistan’s first nuclear test and you cannot forget that Pakistan is another character in this story.

And Letters: Review of Meg Wolitzer’s The Ten-Year Nap

The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitze

I was in my car when I heard Meg Wolitzer on NPR discussing her new novel, The Ten Year Nap. For a weird second, it seemed like I was talking on the radio, but that was impossible because I was in my car, swerving inappropriately into other people’s lanes. Wolitzer was definitely talking about my life-the life of a woman who quit working to stay home with the kids. I dug around for a pen, and scribbled the title of the book on an old bank receipt.

Artist Mary Cassatte evokes strong images of motherhood

I went straight home and ordered the book. The Ten Year Nap follows a group of women who put careers on hold to be stay-at-home moms. But, Wolitzer doesn’t write about that initial decision that comes as such a shock to many modern new moms who find themselves embracing what we thought was an old-fashioned notion of motherhood. Instead she focuses on a later stage of motherhood, when the infants have become school-aged, and what was meant to be a temporary situation begins to feel disturbingly permanent. Wolitzer examines the moment when the mother comes up for air, catches her breath, and figures out how to become comfortable in her own skin again. I responded as strongly as I did to Wolitzer’s book because I am a mother who quit working to raise a child. I was desperate to read The Ten Year Nap because I hoped to find some explanation or justification for the decisions I’ve made. Honestly, I was hoping the book would confirm that what I was doing was smart and worthwhile.

Wolitzer’s book, though, doesn’t take sides in the work-home debate. What it does do is elevate the debate by treating the subject intelligently, with wry humor, and a certain amount of contemplative reverence. It is a fairly realistic paean to the confusing mess of feelings that go along with modern motherhood. The women in the novel, each in their own way, are experiencing a kind of mid-life crisis. One central character, Amy, gave up a law career ten years earlier and now worries that she’s too out-of-date to go back to work. She’s also coming to grips with the financial toll the decision to stay at home has had on her family. Amy’s best friend, Jill, chose to stay at home to raise her adopted daughter with whom she is disturbingly unable to bond. Isolated in her new suburban home, Amy struggles to reconcile her expectations with her real life. The barrier-busting feminists from the early days of the women’s lib movement are represented in the character of Amy’s mother, Antonia. In a way, Antonia and her group of aging feminists seem almost as dated as a group of June Clever moms. Yet Amy can’t help wondering if, in making her decision to quit working, she has turned her back on the hard-fought gains made by women like her mother. Is a woman who quits work to raise children backsliding? It’s a question many women struggle to answer.

When I entered the work world in the 1980’s, women executives tied little scarves around their necks in a strange homage to  men’s neckties. Female veterans of the workplace warned of the danger of appearing too feminine. We should never coo over pictures of other people’s children and should never bring baked goods to office parties. God forbid anyone should visualize us in the kitchen with a mixer and an oven mitt. We were wedging our way into what had been an exclusively man’s world by mimicking as closely as possible the successful man. What our strategy failed to consider was that by modeling ourselves on men, we became conspirators in further diminishing the value of work traditionally considered “women’s.” If the feminist movement was about “self-actualization,” it has failed women who choose home over work. Women have gained status in the work world. But women who discover they want to stay home with their children can’t shake the feeling that they are somehow settling for less than they should.

If men and women were valued equally, there would be equal numbers of men and women choosing home over work. Clearly that is not the case. The Ten Year Nap illustrates how intensely personal these decisions are. It also reflects the biases that still remain in play between men and women. The decision to return to work or stay home with a child depends, not just on unique personal factors, but also on perceptions. Real parity between the sexes isn’t possible until both sexes perceive both kinds of work as equally valuable.

And Letters: Review of Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

There’s no denying that Per Petterson is a master storyteller.  His spare prose squeezes every ounce of meaning from the chosen words in his novel, Out Stealing Horses.  The Norwegian setting lends an other-worldliness to the story of an older man reassessing his past.  In particular, the man reconstructs memories of his father.  Partly from his own memories and partly from wartime stories about his father told by a friend, what emerges is a contradictory tale of a father’s wisdom and love and of a father’s neglect.

Lovely prose and haunting subject notwithstanding, I was  nonplussed by Out Stealing Horses.  I never developed a relationship with Trond, the man at the center of the story.  It was difficult to keep my mind from wandering while reading about Trond.  His self-imposed removal from the outside world, which provokes his contemplation of this youth,  feels artificial.  Despite ooccasional wispy hints of his earlier life, Trond never becomes real.  Trond, isolated in a cabin in the Norwegian woods, seems more a vehicle for an interesting semi-story of wartime intrigue.  Trond is just another anti-social old guy who likes to live alone and think about himself.

Out Stealing Horses made the New York Times Books of the Year list, so perhaps I missed something.  Or, perhaps, certain authors of the male persuasion overestimate the charm of isolation and rumination.  Without a compelling character, reading about Trond’s memories of his life is like sitting through a long dinner with a first date who does nothing but talk about himself from soup to nuts.

Still, Petterson’s writing is lovely and spare, and ultimately worth reading.  I just don’t think the story is as universally appealing as some reviewers believe.

An Apology of Motherhood – Meg Wolitzer’s The Ten Year Nap

Meg Wolitzer's The Ten Year Nap

I was in my car when I heard Meg Wolitzer on NPR discussing her new novel, The Ten Year Nap. For a weird second, it seemed like I was talking on the radio, but that was impossible because I was in my car, swerving inappropriately into other people’s lanes. Wolitzer was definitely talking about my life-the life of a woman who quit working to stay home with the kids. I dug around for a pen, and scribbled the title of the book on an old bank receipt.

I went straight home and ordered the book. The Ten Year Nap follows a group of women who put careers on hold to be stay-at-home moms. But, Wolitzer doesn’t write about that initial decision that comes as such a shock to many modern new moms who find themselves embracing what we thought was an old-fashioned notion of motherhood. Instead she focuses on a later stage of motherhood, when the infants have become school-aged, and what was meant to be a temporary situation begins to feel disturbingly permanent. Wolitzer examines the moment when the mother comes up for air, catches her breath, and figures out how to become comfortable in her own skin again. I responded as strongly as I did to Wolitzer’s book because I am a mother who quit working to raise a child. I was desperate to read The Ten Year Nap because I hoped to find some explanation or justification for the decisions I’ve made. Honestly, I was hoping the book would confirm that what I was doing was smart and worthwhile.

Wolitzer’s book, though, doesn’t take sides in the work-home debate. What it does do is elevate the debate by treating the subject intelligently, with wry humor, and a certain amount of contemplative reverence. It is a fairly realistic paean to the confusing mess of feelings that go along with modern motherhood. The women in the novel, each in their own way, are experiencing a kind of mid-life crisis. One central character, Amy, gave up a law career ten years earlier and now worries that she’s too out-of-date to go back to work. She’s also coming to grips with the financial toll the decision to stay at home has had on her family. Amy’s best friend, Jill, chose to stay at home to raise her adopted daughter with whom she is disturbingly unable to bond. Isolated in her new suburban home, Amy struggles to reconcile her expectations with her real life. The barrier-busting feminists from the early days of the women’s lib movement are represented in the character of Amy’s mother, Antonia. In a way, Antonia and her group of aging feminists seem almost as dated as a group of June Clever moms. Yet Amy can’t help wondering if, in making her decision to quit working, she has turned her back on the hard-fought gains made by women like her mother. Is a woman who quits work to raise children backsliding? It’s a question many women struggle to answer.

When I entered the work world in the 1980’s, women executives tied little scarves around their necks in a strange homage to the men’s necktie. Female veterans of the workplace warned of the danger of appearing too feminine. We should never coo over pictures of other people’s children and should never bring baked goods to office parties. God forbid anyone should visualize us in the kitchen with a mixer and an oven mitt. We were wedging our way into what had been an exclusively man’s world by mimicking as closely as possible the successful man. What our strategy failed to consider was that by modeling ourselves on men, we became conspirators in further diminishing the value of work traditionally considered “women’s.” If the feminist movement was about “self-actualization,” it has failed women who choose home over work. Women have gained status in the work world. But women who discover they want to stay home with their children can’t shake the feeling that they are somehow settling for less than they should.

If men and women were valued equally, there would be equal numbers of men and women choosing home over work. Clearly that is not the case. The Ten Year Nap illustrates how intensely personal these decisions are. It also reflects the biases that still remain in play between men and women. The decision to return to work or stay home with a child depends, not just on unique personal factors, but also on perceptions. Real parity between the sexes isn’t possible until both sexes perceive both kinds of work as equally valuable.