TWOL is back for its 3rd Anniversary!

Dear readers,
Wow, three years and going strong!  I can’t believe it!  Summer has been an incredibly busy and fruitful time for me as a writer. I was fortunate to participate in a workshop with writer Antonya Nelson (who is a very good teacher). In July I participated in a workshop with her husband Robert Boswell at the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference (talk about a writing power couple! He knows everything!). In August, I had the extraordinary privilege of going to the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont, where I was in a workshop with Lan Samantha Chang (she is remarkably down-to-earth for being so talented!) So posts came to a standstill for a while, but stay tuned for some exciting things here, including a unique interview. Thanks for reading and your support!
Warmest wishes,

Since 1776: Britain and/vs. the United States

With Independence Day soon approaching on July 4, I thought it would be interesting to explore the similarities and differences between British and American culture. As a devoted Anglophile who has studied abroad in England, visited the London area many times, and has family and friends there, I am always fascinated by America’s “homeland” and the culture there. There are a few things that absolutely make me scratch my head in wonder (the English fry up–baked beans at breakfast??), and other things I admire or can relate to. In no particular order, here are some of the similarities and differences I have noticed:

-England’s English is more ornate, flowery, and wordy than American English. Our use of language here is very direct, efficient, and about not wasting anybody’s time. One can see this in the language of our obsessive, dumbed-down text culture. While this efficiency is often very admirable and shows a certain confidence in expressing one’s ideas with an economy of words, at the same time, we can lack the eloquence, visible erudition, and even clever wordplay (there is nothing like British sarcasm, nothing!) that we find in the same language used across the pond. The language has had a longer time to develop in its homeland, and there are much deeper roots and history entwined with British English. American English’s strength is its innovation, which has surprisingly led the Oxford English Dictionary to include slangy words that might not have been considered decades earlier.

-Britons and Americans are both rather good-humored people. But there is more public bawdiness allowed on TV, in the media, etc. A streak of Puritanism still can run through American culture despite the fact that one can very easily find extremely racy, dirty, and vulgar American humor in the media. But the bawdy humor runs back centuries–think of Shakespeare, and the actors performing the play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Juliet’s nurse teasing about the pleasures of the nuptial bed in Romeo and Juliet.

-Both the United States and Great Britain are large, Anglo-Saxon-based multicultural societies. While there is the dominance of culture, there is also a huge inclusion and tolerance of diversity, minorities, and various ethnic groups. Part of this is due to the countries’ history of colonization and/or slavery. While someone who is Jamaican British for 2 generations would be considered British, someone who is Moroccan in France for two generations would still be considered Moroccan. Britain is very unique in Europe, and cannot be rightly considered Continental in her values, despite EU membership. Britain has proudly retained the pound sterling as her currency, and with the current economic crises in the EU, that was a wise decision.

-I once read a quote (I believe it was by JB Priestley) that England is “reasonable, not rational.” This has its pros and cons. As above, England is less puritanical overall, can accept more behaviors with a reasonable point of view. The long traditions of the English imagination, dandyism, architecture, royal culture, even its religion (Catholicism which then morphed into the Church of England) all illustrate a certain sense of grace and luxuriousness beyond the practicality of American day-to-day life. However, day-to-day life is run with much more smoothness and efficiency in the United States. Ours is not a bureaucratic country, and many institutional processes happen much more quickly here. Each visit to London makes me realize how disorganized the country can be—train stations are a mess, nobody knows which bus goes where, and one must either freeze or burn one’s hands when deciding between the cold or hot taps on the sink.

-Both the US and UK rely heavily on processed, prepackaged foods. Perhaps it is a leftover habit from the war, but supermarkets offer any variety of edible or prepare a bowl in a box, tin/can, or bag. Both the US and UK have gone through a foodie revolution, so to speak, in the past couple of decades, and the number of excellent restaurants has exponentially increased in both countries (primarily in urban areas). Britain does have the advantage of being a smaller country in that the distance from which locally grown foods are shipped is much smaller, although a number of items are imported from southern Europe and northern Africa. But this general reliance on processed foods is still very prevalent in both countries, and perhaps it is no surprise that both the US and UK have high rates of obesity (with the former having the highest rates in the world).

-Naturally, the reason for the colonies’ split from England was the dislike of monarchy and the love of freedom. But what does it mean to have a monarchy and how does this filter out into society? The primary factor that comes to mind is class. The UK is still very class-oriented, and though the upper class is a very small percentage, their landholding and wealth can be quite staggering. With any nobility-holding society comes a great tradition of the arts, high arts. In the United States, we are still developing an arts culture, and it tends to be based more on wealth and individualism rather than something historical. A sense of monarchy also lends itself to a more complacent society, in my opinion. People are more willing to be deferential in the UK in a way that we do not see here in the United States. Social harmony and well being are a higher priority than the extreme individualism and freedom we see in the US. Everything seems more calm, accepting, and unquestioned in the United Kingdom. In the United States, people are much less willing to accept what is put in the baby’s bottle, so to speak, without thinking it through and seeing if it meets the individual’s needs.

-Class differences and social structure are very different between the US and UK. Americans might falsely present an image of our country being a classless society, while the UK still retains the reputation of being run by the upper class and royals, while the rest of the country lives in detached houses. The US does indeed have different social classes, but the markers are often less obvious. Speech, for one, is relatively homogenized compared to Britain. How one speaks does not clearly indicate one’s social position. Also, people cross class barriers much more frequently here. For example, the child of multimillionaires may be working as a waitress in the summer during high school, or a plumber may be on a luxury cruise with passengers who are wealthy professionals. However, it is rare that we discuss class in the United States or very distinctly portray working-class people in our media. One of the rare exceptions was the groundbreaking TV sitcom “Roseanne” which was unabashedly working class. The idea in America is that everyone works, and everyone is self-made, whether or not this is entirely true. We would never have, financially or culturally, a social designation such as
“long term unemployed” as does the UK (as per the Office of National Statistics)!

The comparisons are endless, but the discussion must end here for now. Happy July 4 to all my American readers, and hopefully the Britons aren’t still bitter over 1776…

La Bohème: The Opera about “Nothing”

A friend complained that she profoundly disliked the opera La Bohème. Her criticism of Puccini’s hugely popular masterpiece is that the opera drags on, that it takes too long for Mimi to die, and that all of the operas she dislikes happen to be written by Puccini. These might sound like invalid criticisms, comments made by hurried, uncultured Americans who always want to “get somewhere” or something to happen. Lest one assume she is a complete cultural ignoramus, my friend is actually very knowledgeable about opera and the fine arts, and holds memberships to New York art museums though she lives in the Midwest. I was offended in jest, as I am currently learning the role of Musetta, which is as delightful as it is challenging, and will later learn the role of Mimi.

One could argue that we all have an artist we dislike in a particular genre. I doubt I will ever sit through an entire opera by Wagner, despite being an opera singer. But Wagner’s music is absolutely stunning in small doses. I find the overtures to Rienzi and Tannhäuser (one of my marooned-on-a-desert-island picks) and the Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin (tear-inducing when heard live by the Mariinsky Orchestra) to be heartbreakingly gorgeous. I have also joked that I refuse to see Puccini’s Turandot on moral grounds, that the opera is a sort of play-the-black-keys-on-the piano-and-it’s “Chinese” kind of Orientalism at its worst. But I do think it worthwhile to examine La Bohème in detail, to see if there is validity in my friend’s criticism of the opera.

La Bohème, essentially, is “an opera about nothing,” to borrow the analogy from the description of the hugely popular television show “Seinfeld.” The show focused on minutiae, where each episode was not about something grand or dramatic, but something small and silly, where the pleasure in watching came simply from being in the moment and enjoying the pleasure of watching, from funny lines or absurd situations or characters’ quirks. There is something to be said about this characteristic in all genres of artwork, where the realization of the work of art and its details, the way it reproduces reality or conjures the particular emotional feeling of the moment, is what makes it noteworthy. Impressionist paintings, for example, evoke a mood, as do 19th-century symphonic tone poems or a film like the stunning “Wings of Desire” (“Der Himmel Über Berlin”) by Wim Wenders, which is poetry on screen.

The main plotline to La Bohème is relatively simple—-a young dying woman, Mimì, falls in love with poor poet Rodolfo, who lives with his painter friend Marcello, and they are friends with other starving artists. Their relationship goes through ups and downs, as does the painter’s relationship with the coquettish Musetta. In the end, Mimì dies. All relatively straightforward, and not so much to stretch out into 4 acts. On this point, I would agree: La Bohème is too long; Act III could be condensed into Act IV. The opera could work in two acts, actually. The first could accelerate the meeting of Mimì and Rodolfo, then involve a set change into the café. At this peak of happiness, we could then see it all go downhill: Mimì seeks Marcello out to tell him of her unhappiness with Rodolfo, and then, after a set change, she dies. But even in condensing the opera into two acts, we are still ignoring a structural problem: too much of the action of here happens offstage. In this, the criticism that nothing happens in La Bohème may be well justified.

In Act I, the plot is set into action. We see Rodolfo writing and Marcello painting. We see their struggles as artists, we feel their suffering due to the lack of heat and food. And then most importantly, we see Mimì introduced onto the scene. We see her faint, we get to know her sickness. And then we see her falling in love with Rodolfo, and vice versa. In other words, Act I is active, because we are engaged with the events shown onstage.

Act II is less active, but we can forgive it because of one key reason—Musetta. She is one of opera’s greatest female characters, a free-spirited, vain, flirtatious, independent woman who will do as she pleases. She is one of the rare characters who does not suffer a tragic end, nor is she punished for enjoying her sexuality. Though we do not get much of the backstory of Marcello and Musetta’s, we get enough: theirs is an eternally on-off relationship that is generally taken lightly, in contrast to the deep, intimate, emotionally tortured relationship of Rodolfo and Mimì. We enjoy Musetta’s attention-seeking antics she uses to seduce Marcello, and her showcase aria, “Quando m’en vo” is arguably one of the most beautiful arias in all of opera. Act II is all about pleasure, pleasure in romance, pleasure in eating, pleasure in being surrounded by townsfolk. Though not super active, there is still visible action that drives the plot forward. Musetta is reunited with Marcello, and Rodolfo and Mimì are deeply in love forever.

Act III is where the opera becomes more passive. This fact is probably the most passive of all the 4 acts. Mimì has gone to seek Rodolfo at a tavern during winter. She reveals to Marcello what she has suffered from Rodolfo’s jealousy. Then, Rodolfo tells Marcello that he can’t bear it that Mimì is dying. The couple meets, and agrees to stay together until spring. While this is all fine and well, it is only because the music is so beautiful that the audience remains engaged. So much of the action has happened offstage–we have not gotten to see the downfall of their relationship, the arguments, the jealousies, Mimì’s slow decline. The contrast of a fight between Marcello and Musetta serves for comic relief: if Act II was a love moment, Act III is a hate moment in the roller coaster of their relationship. These two characters are not critical to the plot in the way Rodolfo and Mimì are. Time is stretched out in this act; it moves even more slowly than real-time.

Act IV is also rather passive until Mimì arrives on the scene. We have found out that she took up with a viscount after leaving Rodolfo, but has dragged herself, with the help of Musetta, to Rodolfo’s apartment to die. Again, too much has happened offstage that we want to know about–how did they survive the parting? What was Mimi’s relationship with this viscount? Did Rodolfo see any other women in the meantime? How has Mimì’s arrived at death’s door? Has she tried to save her life? Meanwhile, Musetta’s character arc shows her as less selfish than she was before. She has gone with Marcello to sell her earrings to buy Mimi a muff, and makes a sincere prayer to the Virgin Mary to save Mimi, an angel, considering herself unworthy of pardon. Her death scene is indeed touching, the group of friends surrounding her with their warmth and love. But again, one could argue that this act is stretched out longer than necessary, without much going on.

In sum, then, the problem with La Bohème is pacing and the portrayal of time. One must remember that the opera is based on a book, Scènes de la vie de bohème (scenes from a bohemian life), and therein lies the problem: the libretto is based on scenes. Any time a group of stories is woven together into a film or a longer work, such as an opera (and opera might be considered the equivalent of a novel), there is the danger of the longer work being fragmented. Longer works need structure and plot development. These two literary devices are the backbone or skeleton for a film or opera. Two people, Giacosa and Illica, also wrote the libretto and this may also be another source of the problem. Many films that seem unclear, messy, or fragmented have multiple writers, and it is rare when they can find unity in their vision.

This said, I still find La Bohème to be one of the most beautiful and engaging operas ever written. Puccini’s music carries the story even when it is weak, the language of the libretto is simply gorgeous and poetic, and the characters are as relevant today as they were over 100 years ago. They are rounded and complex, real and flawed. Proof of La Bohème’s popularity and relevance can be seen in Jonathan Larson’s 1996 musical, Rent. I personally happen to find the musical a somewhat vulgar copy of the opera, though I am always a fan of any modern work that draws on classics, such as the brilliant films that comprised 2005’s “ShakespeaRe-told”. There is no question that La Bohème will continue to be a classic for decades if not centuries to come.

Poem “We to the World” by Lorna Goodison

Dear readers,
Your patience in waiting for a new post has paid off–The Women of Letters is unbelievably proud and grateful to present a new poem by Professor Lorna Goodison of the University of Michigan, a distinguished poet from Jamaica who is renowned the world over!  I hope you will be encouraged to read more of her work, for her poetry is very accessible. Professor Goodison is a true woman of letters, and her poem for TWOL is of an especially relevant subject: the Boko Haram kidnapping of schoolgirls, young women who are being denied their right to become women of letters.


We to the World: Bring Back Our Girls!
Reply from the world: They are your girls, not ours.

Memo to the World:
Armies have not yet managed
to spring our stolen school girls
from that pack of barking mad loco haram .
To remind you, here is a snapshot of them:

In this picture we see our lost girls swathed
in rough regulation grey dress.
From afar they look like wooden vessels
seized on a storm-tossed sea;
or a school graduation group portrait
from bad luck’s let them down academy.

TWOL Update

Dear readers,

This blog, will now be moving to

The old address should automatically transfer you to the new one, but in case of technical difficulties, now you know how to find TWOL.

Thanks for reading!

Lady Chatterley’s Lover: D.H. Lawrence’s “Crisis”

D.H. Lawrence’s scandalous work was banned in many places, and it raised a great ruckus for its explicit sexual content and frank discussion of sex and the body. However, perhaps it would have been best to ban it for the greatest crime of all: it is badly written.

The first sin is the title heroine herself, Lady Chatterley, who is the former Constance Reid. We do not ever fully get a sense of who she is, as she is rather opaque. We get her perceptions of the world and other people, but very little of how others react to her, a rounded sense of her personality, and her true inner feelings. She seems muddle-headed, depressed, and never truly satisfied, as per Lawrence’s depiction of her, a sort of symbolic figure around whom the other characters and action revolve. Connie Chatterley is one in a long line of sexually unfulfilled heroines who try to meet their desires, including Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and even Scarlett O’Hara. However, with these other heroines, their journey to sexual and romantic fulfillment is clearer; their path to achieving it is defined distinctly and their motivations are transparent. For example, Emma Bovary’s life in the country bores her, and her goal of escaping provincial life and going to the city is evident throughout the trajectory of the story. Connie, as revealed through the dialogue, does not always seem entirely happy even when she is alone with her lover, Mellors. Perhaps Anna Karenina’s opium might have done her some good.

Lawrence spends virtually no time discussing Connie’s childhood and family life, the time spent abroad in Germany with her sister Hilda, and how unique, progressive, and radical her upbringing was. Connie was a thinker. She was a free spirit, intellectually and sexually, and her father encouraged it. We see very little of this in Connie throughout the novel, not even when she is feeling free with her lover. Only when Hilda comes to take her to Venice at the end do we get an inkling of her family background and earlier life, and how bohemian and fascinating it was. The introduction of Duncan Forbes in the end seems like a cheap device to try to resolve the problem of Connie’s socially scandalous pregnancy. Lawrence should have introduced him early on, made him an integral part of the sisters’ lives.

Lawrence’s clumsy, clunky prose aims to illustrate Connie’s dissatisfaction with life at a manor called Wragby, in the industrial English Midlands. She is surrounded by factories, collieries, and the like, and her husband is the ultimate symbol of that world. These scenes are contrasted with her idyllic trysts in the woods with Mellors. While some might argue that the way in which these contrasting scenes are drawn is rather simplistic and pedantic, to illustrate modern industrial life and the necessity of “going back to nature” by living in it and embracing the body, what is even worse are the long speeches on these subjects. Both Clifford and Mellors are guilty of this. They go on and on for pages on their philosophical viewpoints that are essentially undisguised treatises; the most unforgivable situations are when Mellors does this after sex. This leads one to point out another flaw in Lawrence’s writing–poor dialogue. We can get the gist of what the character is trying to convey in a paragraph; there is no need to go on for pages. Even with page after page of dialogue, there is still a rather opaque quality to what is revealed about the characters’ thoughts and feelings. The reader comes away scratching her/his head wondering what was said and what the point was. Too much is told through the narrator throughout the novel, rather than shown. Perhaps in this case, the cliché of “show, don’t tell” should have been applied meticulously. Ultimately, this all affects the pacing of the novel, which is too long, too drawn out, and ragged.

Mellors almost seems cartoonish, or more generously, two-dimensional at times. He is certainly an interesting man who has lived an interesting life–a working-class man who was “bumped up” through education, a failed marriage, a child, sexual experience, time spent in the Army in India, Egypt, South Africa–and yet he is reduced to a gruff woodsman does not who speak, but my, isn’t he good between the sheets? His lapses into the broad Derbyshire accent are absurd and most distracting to the reader; it recalls Ricky Ricardo’s outbursts in Spanish on “I Love Lucy” when he is highly emotionally charged.

Mrs. Bolton and Clifford’s romance is the only one that seems the most plausible because it is organic: we see it develop very naturally, and the pacing feels very appropriate. She is a widow and a nurse, Clifford is a cripple and essentially a widower. She is in a position of power, he is in a position of vulnerability. Naturally, over time, it is bound to lead to love. Mrs. Bolton seems the most complex of all the characters, for we see her noble side in nursing, as well as her gossipy side in suspecting Connie’s affair, her wise woman side in knowing how to defer to Connie, and also her dark side, as she, too, had been involved with Mellors. Michaelis must also be mentioned in the same breath, for his character as an outsider who is a successful social climber, yet a vulnerable man inside, is also complex and interesting to read. However, too much of him is told rather than shown.

Finally, one cannot ignore the sex scenes and explicitly sexual language in the novel, which is why it became famous. Simply put, it is TMI, too much information. While initially, it feels honest and refreshing, over time it becomes ridiculous, soft-core pornography folded into Victorian sensibility. The reader simply must laugh with scenes of threading wildflowers into nether regions, names for genitals, and metaphors of ocean waves. (Surely, clever readers will notice the choice of the word “crisis” in the title, which was Lawrence’s description of the orgasm.) While it might seem initially that Lawrence’s subject matter and style is very modern for its time, I would argue that the book is really rather a (Victorian) moral treatise, or “amoral treatise,” for the author is trying to tell the reader very specifically that sexual fulfillment in connection to nature is the most important thing in life, and that one must choose to live as such. I quote Lawrence himself, when he writes in “A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover” about Colonel Barker, who was a woman living as a man, supposedly unbeknownst to his unsuspecting wife: “The revelation at the end is beyond all thought for the poor woman… Yet there are thousands of women today who might be so deceived, and go on being deceived why? Because they know nothing, they can’t think sexually at all…It is better to give all girls this book, at the age of 17.”

Thus, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is an instructive tome above all, rather than a work of literature meant to entertain and provoke deep thought and emotion, something that evokes a crisis of boredom in the reader. Frankly, I would take Anna Karenina any day over Lady Chatterley, for it is the truly scandalous, groundbreaking book. It does not instruct; rather, it shows everything without passing judgment. Perhaps Fifty Shades of Grey is the new Lady Chatterley’s Lover?