Thursday, February 25, 2010

Guest-blogger Novelist Joanna Smith Rakoff: 5 Favorite Books of New York Stories

Madam Mayo is especially delighted to welcome today's guest-blogger, novelist Joanna Smith Rakoff, author of A Fortunate Age, a novel that has been receiving an avalanche of praise: it was a recent New York Times editor's pick, winner of the Elle Reader's Prize, an IndieNext pick, a San Francisco Chronicle best-seller and more. Over to you, Joanna!

New York Stories

The impetus for my novel, A Fortunate Age, came in part from a desire to capture a particular period in New York’s history. I grew up about 30 miles north of Manhattan, but always felt—like so many misunderstood suburban kids—- that the city was my spiritual home, my destiny. As a teenager, I spent every free minute wandering the streets of the Village and Morningside Heights, biding my time until I was old enough to move there on my own. At twenty-five, I inherited and moved into my grandmother’s apartment on the Lower East Side, a stroke of luck that also felt deeply ordained.

Throughout my life, I’ve gravitated toward fiction about the city. As a kid, I devoured Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family books, about a Jewish family on the Lower east Side at the turn of the century, and dreamed of running away to live at the Met like the kids in E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. As a grown up, I perhaps read an overhealthy amount of New York-centric fiction. When I began pulling books off my shelf, in preparation for writing this blog post, the stacks covered my kitchen table: The House of Mirth and Washington Square, Dawn Powell’s A Year to Be Born and Mary McCarthy’s The Group (both of which I’ve talked and written too much about), Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, and that’s just the beginning. Below are five fictions about New York that have been on my mind lately:

1. Brightness Falls, Jay McInerney.
A sublime dissection of New York in the 1980s, when even the underpaid publishing slaves weren’t immune to the money fever that defined the period, Brightness Falls follows a striving bourgeois couple as they succumb to the madness of their time. Russell Calloway, an editor at a literary publishing house, launches a plan to initiate a leveraged buy out of his failing company, ousting his lecherous boss, an industry legend. Meanwhile, his wife, Corinne, who’s job as a trader really pays the rent, is quietly losing her mind. And then, of course, the market crashes.

2. The White Rose, Jean Hanff Korelitz.
I’ve written elsewhere about Korelitz’s latest novel, Admission, which is perhaps my favorite novel of 2009. Like Admission, The White Rose is a novel of manners, set primarily on Manhattan’s Upper East Side—and its eastern and northern colonies, the Hamptons and the Berkshires—among the wealthy German Jews and the nouveau riche who aspire to their social status. Though it’s based on the Strauss opera, Der Rosenkavalier, it reads more like a contemporary gloss on Wharton: A childless Columbia professor, Marian Kahn, at 48 has fallen crashingly—- and, she fears, absurdly—- in love with her best friend’s son, 26-year-old Oliver, who has also becomes—- through a series of absurdities—- the object of her closeted cousin Barton’s affections. Complications ensue. Korelitz perfectly captures the fabric of a particular segment of the city and a very specific sort of class yearning.

3. The Lost Language of Cranes, David Leavitt.
Leavitt’s lovely, melancholic first novel—- which is clearly and admittedly indebted to Woolf-— is the ultimate New York novel in that its plot centers on real estate: It’s the mid-1980s and a staunchly middle class couple, Rose and Owen, are on the verge of losing the rent-controlled apartment in which they’ve lived for decades—and raised their son, Philip. Their building is going co-op and they can’t afford to buy. The resultant anxiety—- which they can’t, of course, discuss—- threatens their fragile contentment. What they also can’t discuss: Philip is gay. And so is Owen. But what I love about this novel-- other than the perfect dialogue and the characters who eerily resemble my neighbors-- is the way the city becomes a character unto itself, from the very first lines, in which Owen is “hurrying down Third Avenue, past closed and barred florist shops and newsstands[,]” as the rain soaks his jacket and he tries not to think about the fact that “[b]ehind the lighted windows of apartment buildings people stretched, divided the Sunday Times, poured coffee into glazed mugs.”

4. The Best of Everything, Rona Jaffe.
A runaway bestseller in 1958, Jaffe’s first novel follows three young women who work as secretaries—- today, they’d be called “assistants”—- at a publishing house. One perseveres and makes it as an editor, at no small cost. The others meet less happy ends. Reminiscent of both Hardy and Dickens, this is ultimately both a cautionary tale about the perils of being a lone woman in the big city and a furious screed against the various forces that ensure those perils will never disappear. The urgency of Jaffe’s prose is almost jarring. I wasn’t surprised to learn she wrote the novel—- all 450 pages of it—- in a frenzied five months. But what did surprise me, when I first read it last year, was how little has changed in the half-century since she wrote it. “You see them every morning at a quarter to nine, rushing out of the maw of the subway tunnel... the hundreds and hundreds of girls.” Yep, I still see them. Ten years ago, I was one of them.

5. Bad Behavior, Mary Gaitskill.
I read this collection, Gaitskill’s first, in college and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that it changed my life, in that it provided me with an entirely new concept of what constituted contemporary fiction. The stories in this collection, largely set in Manhattan in the 1980s, chronicle young men and women utterly unmoored from—- at odds with—- the world around them. They paint, they “medicate” and stay up for days, they think they want to be spanked, then are repelled by the banality of the experience. Gaitskill’s dry, almost deadpan prose perfectly captures the East Village of the period, the streets “buzzing with junkies and kids with big radios,” who mumble offers of drugs as you walk past.

--- Joanna Smith Rakoff

---> For the complete archive of Madam Mayo guest-blog posts, click here.

P.S. Check out Joanna Smith Rakoff's enlightening guest-blog post on the book tour for my amiga novelist Leslie Pietrzyk's excellent literary blog, Work-in-Progress.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Joaquin Miller Cabin Poetry Reading Series

Postmarked by March 31:
To participate in the Joaquin Miller Cabin Poetry Series, submit 5 poems each with name, address, phone numbers, email, short literary bio, and self-addressed envelope to:
Rosemary Winslow, Department of English
The Catholic University of America
Washington, DC 20064

C.M. Mayo's Dialogue Intensive at the Writer's Center on March 7, 2010

One day only Dialogue Intensive workshop for both fiction and creative nonfiction (personal memoir, travel memoir, etc) writers, both beginning and advanced, this March 7th, 10 am - 5 pm (with a one hour break for lunch) at the Writer's Center in Bethesda MD (next to Washington DC).

One of the most powerfully vivid ways to show character, relationship, conflict and/or mood is through the use of dialogue. For both beginning and advanced fiction and nonfiction writers, this workshop focuses on the use and misuse of dialogue, with a series of mini-lectures interspersed with brief exercises. The goal is that by the end of the workshop, the dialogue in your writing will be of notably higher quality.

For more information and to register on-line, click here.

For more about my books, visit

More anon--- including a guest-blog post.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Guest-Blogger Jane "Mexico Guru" Onstott on Five Mexican Idioms That Don't Mean What You Might Think

For the last few years, on Wednesdays except when not, this blog has featured guest-bloggers as varied as travel writers, a medievalist, a Feng Shui expert, several poets, a multitude of novelists, a chef, a documentary filmmaker, and the King of the Baja Buffs, all with with new books, websites, blogs, workshops, you name it, apropos of which they offer you, dear surfer, five links. Now that the holidays and the scaling of a few unexpected Himalayas are in the rear view mirror, Madam Mayo blog resumes this feature y con mucho gusto! There's a great line-up for the next few Wednesdays, and today, Mexico-based writer, photographer, and Spanish translator Jane Onstott (not pictured left). Mexico aficionados, and anyone thinking of venturing south of the border, be sure to visit her chock-full-of-info website, Mexico Guru. Over to you, amiga!

Five Mexican idioms that don’t mean what you might think

#1 A poco

“Un poco” means “a little,” and following the Mexican custom of turning everything possible into a diminutive, is often expressed “un poquito,” or “a little bit.” But when your significant other responds “¿A poco?” to your explanation of last night’s midnight visit to a sick friend, he or she is expression a friendly skepticism about your selflessness. In a milder sense, “A poco,” means “Really?” can be useful as a space filler or when you aren’t sure how to respond.

#2 Caer gordo

Its literally meaning is “to fall fat.” This useful phrase indicates dislike or displeasure. If Mikey is a pain in the butt, his brother tells his dad that he won’t hang out with his sib “porque me cae gordo”---“he bugs me.” Too much busywork at your tedious, underpaid job? “Este pinche trabajo me cae gordo” means “This damn job is a pain in the butt.”

#3 Changuitos

Changuitos are “little monkeys,” but to Mexicans, it’s the same as saying “Cross your fingers” or “With any luck.” If young Irma asks her best friend, “Can you get out of babysitting to go to the party?”, her young pal might cross her fingers and reply, “¡Changuitos!”

#4 Codo

This means “elbow,” but if your blind date scowls at you and mumbles the word “codo,” she’s not referring to your anatomy. When you refuse the pick up the check for the third straight time, your best friend might very well call you “codo,” or cheap, to your face. If she rubs her elbow, it means the same thing.

#5 What would you think if someone told you to “Go fry asparagus”?

Don’t bother running to The Food Channel or The Joy of Cooking; you’ve just been insulted. Telling someone to go “freir aspáragos” is the equivalent of saying “Take a hike! (Juanito told his friend: “My boss told me to expect a pay cut, ¡pero le mandé freir aspáragos!”)

--- Jane Onstott

P.S. You can follow Mexico Guru on twitter @mexicoguru

---> For the archive of Madam Mayo guestblog posts, click here.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Top 10 Reactions to Henry James's The Ambassadors

My dear amiga N. has been urging me to read this Henry James novel for years--- um, eleven years. I'll admit that 10 years ago I purchased a beautiful hardcover edition which, alas, ended up as a Goodwill donation when I moved house. Recently (well, three years ago) I bought a paperback version and, at last--- after several false starts---read the whole thing through. Herewith:

1. Elliptical fabulosity, as usual.

2. Strether, dude. (My eyes slide sideways.)

3. Chad Newsome: so Massachusetts-preppie-mom-owns-a-factory-version-of-Brad-Pitt-before-the movie-industry-was-invented.

4. The reasons for Madame de Vionnet's desperation elude me. Even taking into account the century. Even taking into account the charms o' Chad.

5. Maria Gostrey's "little museum of bargains"-- ooo. That was cruel.

6. Waymarsh as Panama hat-wearing cigar store Indian... amusing. If he were alive today, he would shop at Macy's Men's Store (and his estranged wife at Nieman Marcus). But what did Strether see in him in the first place? (My eyes roll ceilingward.)

7. So what did the Newsome factory produce? It could have been washtubs (or worse), but of course James was spot-on to never name It. Note the capitalization. (Which makes me think of Cousin It. Who surely would have used It.)

8. Mrs. Pocock in the Alps: mighty glad she disappeared over those bergs.

9. Some of the later chapters sag. But the ending is brilliant.

10. Merits a reread or three.

I'll be quoting liberally in my Techniques of Fiction workshop next week.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Dance Cards

In going over the wonderful translation of my novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, by Agustin Cadena, one of the terms I've been wondering about is "dance card"--- how (precisely) was that used in Mexico in Spanish? Well, surfeando, I found this delightful and informative webpage about 19th century dance cards here. If you know anything about dance cards in Mexico during the Second Empire, please do leave a comment! More anon.

Monday, February 08, 2010

E. Gould Buffum's Six Months in the Goldmines: From a Journal of Three Years Residence in Upper and Lower California

The rare book is now on-line at the Library of Congress.

E. Gould Buffum was in Lower California (Baja California) as an officer in the U.S. Army during the U.S.-Mexican War. I quoted from his delightfully vivid memoir of his time in and around La Paz and Todos Santos in my own memoir, Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico. Some years later, Buffum ended up in Paris as the correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. I found several references to secret meetings with him in Paris circa 1865-1866 in the archives of John Bigelow, the U.S. minister to France. This brings me to the connection with my novel:

Because she did meet with Bigelow and she was looking to cause a scandal, it is entirely possible that Alice Green de Iturbide, mother of the prince in The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, my novel based on the true story, might have made Buffum's acquaintance while in Paris. Certainly she would have known who he was, for he was then considered one of the leading U.S. journalists in Europe. I took a small liberty in having her threaten Madame Almonte with his appearance in the scene in the chapter "In the Grand-Hotel."

Shortly after this time, Buffum, alas, committed suicide in Paris. He left a charming record of his travels in France, Switzerland and elsewhere on the continent. More about that book anon.

Reid Moran, Botanist, Rest in Peace

Read his obituary in the San Diego Tribune here.

Blogs Noted: Mammoth, Numero Cinq, Wisebread, Rancho Gordo, 10 in 10 Diet, Nick Gilman, Jeri's Decluttering and etc


Numero Cinq
By Canadian novelist and short story writer Douglas Glover et al.

Words to the wise indeed.

Today at Lynn's House
What's cooking that is superduper cheap and healthy. (You, too, can survive financial Armaggedon!)

Rancho Gordo
For los verdaderos bean aficionados.

Good Food Planet: Culiary Musings from Around the World
By Nick Gilman, the Mexico City food expert.

Jeri's Organizing and Decluttering News

Friday, February 05, 2010

Charles Simic on Buster Keaton

This fun essay by poet Charles Simic includes many Buster Keaton vignettes now on video. A link you might want to save to reread and rewatch for a gloomy Monday. More anon.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Can Money Set You Free? by Novelist John Lanchester

A thoughtful article in a recent issue of the Financial Times by novelist John Lanchester. He concludes, "even if you think you understand the impact economic forces can have, they can still strike dangerously close to home. It helps to have a compass, and mine is based on two principles, both of them learnt from my banker father: anxiety is freedom, and the way you are living will have been your life."
More anon.

Latin American Night Fundraiser for the Howard County Library, Columbia MD: CALIENTE! With Francisco Aragon, H.G. Carrillo, and C.M. Mayo

February 27, 2010 Columbia MD
Fundraiser for the Howard County Library: Evening in the Stacks "¡Caliente!"7:00 to 11:00 pm
Howard County Library, East Columbia Branch
6600 Cradlerock Way, Columbia, MD 21045.

Join the party and support the Library. Escape the February chill and revel in a warm Latin ambiance - full of bright flowers, flamenco, a silent auction, and a literary conversation with Francisco Aragón, H.G. Carrillo, and C.M. Mayo, facilitated by Bill Thompson ("Eye on Books").

Dance the night away to the sounds of Latin Grammy Award winners, Afro Bop Alliance. Delicious cuisine from Azul 17, Elkridge Furnace Inn, El Nayar, La Prima Catering, On the Border, Parfections, and Lincoln College of Technology Columbia Campus in conjunction with Holly Poultry and Martin Seafood.

New this year - Celebrity Bartenders! Some of Howard County's favorite people will be putting their spin on a signature cocktail for a limited time during the evening. Make sure to stop by and say hello to State Senator Jim Robey, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, Stacie Hunt and Kevin Kelehan, Donna Richardson, Rachelina Bonacci, and Dick Story.

Proceeds benefit the Library's educational initiatives, including A+ Partners in Education, Project Literacy, and Cultural Connections. To purchase tickets, visit: