Photo: Craig Sunter

Women We Read This Week

Stephanie Sinclair’s “Child, Bride, Mother” in The New York Times

On June 18th, 2007 I wrote in my journal: “She had a C-section and hasn’t lost the baby weight. Her father-in-law told her, ‘Your husband is not going to want you looking like that.’” I was living in Ecuador and my host family had a son who was married to a 16-year-old girl. She had given birth to a baby boy two months earlier, and both her older husband and her father-in-law called her “gorda” and made jokes about how no man would ever desire a body like hers. I spent a lot of time journaling about her, wondering about the desperation I could see on her face, a silent sadness that had no outlet.

This multimedia essay by Stephanie Sinclair, especially the video, which was co-directed by the talented Katie Orlinsky, gives young child-bride-mothers — a group often silenced by lack of education, early pregnancy, and abusive relationships — a chance to speak about their feelings, hopes, and dreams. Sinclair’s work focuses on Guatemala in this essay, but it is a project she has carried out in ten countries, and, sadly, it is one she could carry out almost anywhere.


Mary Norris’s “Holy Writ” in The New Yorker

The first reporting I ever did was for a piece for my high school newspaper about the absence of grammar in the curriculum. I stood in our kitchen on a rotary phone and called my great aunt, an education PhD, in North Carolina to find out her views on the disappearance of diagrammed sentences. Having learned neither grammar nor interview skills, the conversation yielded little.The published story was flat in both form and content. By the time I discovered that punctuation and proper agreement are the skeleton of language’s living body, both my great aunt and the rotary phone were gone.

Now, although I’m not nearly as old as Aunt Ann, I often feel that my colleagues view my insistence on proper comma use as antiquated and fussy–a lace doily of an obsession. There could be no more muscular and bewitching response than this essay by longtime New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris about a life lived with proofing pencil in hand, with particular attention to the role of that little fish-hook that signals pauses and, if you are Oxford-ly inclined, is used before the last item in a list to prevent ambiguity. (Opposed to the serial comma? Consider, as Norris does, “We invited the strippers, J.F.K. and Stalin.”) Norris drove a milk truck and worked in a mozzarella factory before arriving at the New Yorker via a serendipitous connection, replete with high ball glasses, expansive hospitality and bound copies of the magazine’s first issues, with one of the founder’s families. This is a story of a life extraordinarily well lived, with each experience presented as indispensible to the whole: the best sort of existential grammar. Every single sentence in this piece has the clean, current-driven flow of a wide, deep river. Along the way, it is a master class in the meaning of the marks between the letters.

The punctuation is almost like Braille, providing a kind of bas-relief, accentuating the topography of the sentence. It looks choppy, but you don’t have to chop it up when you read it. It is Aldo Manuzio’s comma taken to its logical extreme. It’s not insane—it’s not even nutty. It’s just showing what’s important in the sentence in a subtle way.


Rhian Sasseen’s “She Wants to Be Alone” in Aeon

“Again and again, the most famous, the most celebrated, hermits and recluses are men”: it is this insight which propels Rhian Sasseen’s well-researched essay about women who love being alone. Deliberate solitude is glorified for rugged male individualists like Henry David Thoreau, but when women do the same, they are typecast as the “sad lonely woman walking alone in the woods.” There are good reasons why women might want to pull a Thoreau:

Even a simple stroll down the sidewalk becomes an exercise in self-loathing. Suck in your stomach. Straighten your hem. (What if it rides up, exposing you?) Every shop window offers a glimpse of your own reflection. Adjust, adjust, adjust.

In light of such quotidian indignities (and worse), Sasseen pitches the impulse to solitude as an empowering act, something that can allow a woman to escape the public gaze, family pressures, even “the simple expectations of being a neighbour.” She presents examples of female recluses, from fourth-century Mary of Egypt to Greta Garbo, and shows how their choices gave them satisfactions that life among people never could. Far from being sad or pitiful, says Sasseen, they are free.


Lorrie Moore’s “Our Date With Miranda” in The New York Review of Books

In a moment of serendipity, I was preparing to teach Miranda July while simultaneously reading Lorrie Moore for pleasure when the latest New York Review of Books arrived with the latter reviewing the former. It was a little piece of magic, and only became more so as I read. Moore takes us to the first time she met July, when they were on a panel together and—in typical style—July did something entirely unexpected (I won’t ruin it for you). Moore writes:

“My introduction to July was one at which I watched her redefine boundaries and hijack something destined to be inert and turn it into something uncomfortably alive, whether you wanted her to or not.”

(Moore, for the record, was in the “not” camp, and “silently vow[ed] never to be on another panel.”)

Back in my own world, in the protected vaults of the academy’s literary cannon, I always feel like July is a little bomb, and I’m often uneasy as I prepare to teach her. Moore chimes in on this, too, wondering about this strange place that July inhabits, and why her work is so often simplified into “‘twee,’ ‘fey,’ ‘winsome.’”

She also quotes from David Sedaris on July’s critics: “They’re just jealous.”

Moore, too, has plenty of good to say about July’s work, calling two of the stories in her first collection brilliant, but I think what I appreciate most about this review is the careful, generous way Moore handles those things that she doesn’t love about July’s most recent book, The First Bad Man. And how she quietly admits when those things don’t really matter: “A reader may burst into tears whether it’s warranted or not.”

The review, full of playful parentheticals, is worth reading like a story. Not that we would expect anything less from Moore, but it unfolds with grace, good humor and humanity, coming together to offer us a holistic mico-portrait of July’s strange self and stranger work, which, in the end, is “uncomfortably alive,” whether you want it to be or not.



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