Friday, December 31, 2004

Miscellaneous reading

What with holidays and MLA stuff, I haven't had much time for reading. However I do seem to have read a few books here and there, including some very good ones. First of all, my friend Seth Mnookin's account of the structural and institutional factors at the NY Times that led to the Jayson Blair episode, Hard News, is absolutely wonderful! It's a great read. I have no particular interest in media stuff, but I'm fascinated with the way that institutional and human factors converge to make a place (a company, a school, a university, a church, a government) great or troubled. And Seth comes through in spades. Buy it. Also really excellent (well, we could have predicted that) is Stephen Elliott's Looking Forward to It, an account of his year following the Democratic presidential candidates up to the election. It's hilarious! It's a crime if this guy doesn't write more novels, though--I am eagerly awaiting whatever he publishes next. Miscellaneous others: Stella Duffy's Fresh Flesh (the best of the series so far, I think); Margery Allingham's Traitor's Purse (which I've read a gazillion times before & which holds some strange fascination for me, as do her other novels--I don't think they're good, exactly, but there's something terribly appealing about them in all their strangeness); Augusten Burroughs' Magical Thinking (a good read but slight; there are a few really fantastic pieces in this collection but they're not up to the standard of either of his full-length memoirs, both of which I found extremely rewarding reads, albeit in rather different ways); and In Her Shoes by Jennifer Weiner, whose blog I love. I bought the last at the train station in Philadelphia and it made the ride back to NY pass in a flash. She's a really good writer. I don't think this is as good as her first novel, Good In Bed, but still a very fun read. (My brothers worked on the movie version which was of course filmed in Philadelphia, and were quite as scathing as usual about the story and the production.) Weiner is definitely the best of her kind; in the end, I'm just not that interested in boy-meets-girl stories, or in "pretty on the inside" stories, but I will continue to read her fiction with great enjoyment, and I'm curious to see what she comes out with next. My great reading disappointment of the last few months--and I still haven't finished it, which doesn't speak well--was Jonathan Stroud's sequel to the first novel in the Bartimeus trilogy, The Golem's Eye. I really liked the first one--wonderful writing, really stylish and funny and sort of the anti-Harry Potter because the talented young magician is also selfish, ethically bankrupt, all-round smarmy and horrible in a really wonderful way--but this one just didn't work for me. I think the key difference between YA fiction and adult fantasy, aside from questions of sensibility, concerns style--Susan Cooper really is a genius and the way she did those Dark Is Rising books was amazing. What I'm getting at here in a roundabout way is that the point of the multivolume YA fantasy is that you DON'T write a Dickensian multi-plot novel; instead, you split up characters' stories into different volumes. Philip Pullman does something similar, although he is more ambitious in weaving different stories together. But Stroud gives us way too many different strands in this sequel, and I would much rather have had it split up into (1) vol. 2 for Kitty's story; (2) vol. 3 for Nathaniel's story and (3) vol. 4 for Bartimeus's angle on all this stuff, and then have a resounding fifth volume that wraps up all the strands. However I expect I will finish reading this over the next few days to see what I think of the rest of it.

Friday, December 24, 2004

A most magical and delightful book

Just finished Matt Ruff's Fool on the Hill. I can't believe I didn't read it sooner! Somebody must have told me about it long ago but I never read it till now. And it is EXCELLENT. It gives me vague and positive feelings about the kind of novel I would really like to write in time (unfortunately I am a slow learner when it comes to fiction, it is taking me a million years to get to be a good writer). It reminds me of Jonathan Carroll (only with a vision of the world that's much closer to mine, partly because it's so much less involved with a romantic story of a man and a woman coming together) and Robin McKinley and Neil Gaiman and various others I really like who write on the edge of fantasy and realism, books that are as satisfying in terms of character and setting and style as any other kind of novel but have that intangible thing that delights you from when you first read the Chronicles of Narnia or its equivalent.

And I've got a reasonable draft of my MLA paper. And I've done all laundry and picked up dry-cleaning and gotten Xmas presents and generally prepared for a more-sociable-than-usual stint in Philadelphia with family and then MLA-related things. So things look a bit rosier than they did earlier in the week... My only wish for tomorrow is that Penn Station (terrorist/fire hazard par excellence) not be thronged tomorrow morning as it was on Thanksgiving!

My grandfather

My grandfather died on Thanksgiving, aged 94. Here are a few obituaries, rather belatedly: Richard Robbins in the Guardian;the Times and an addendum by my uncle Patrick;the Independent (requires a subscription).

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Narthex

There's an amazing piece by Colm Toibin in the latest New York Review of Books, about Hollinghurst and The Line of Beauty. I think very, very highly of Hollinghurst, and I read this essay practically jumping out of my seat. Toibin says many things that I have thought about AH's fiction but in far more lovely phrasing than would ever have occurred to me in a million years. Witness the following: "His description of the great attraction of the underparts and overparts of many men plays fearlessly against his copious use of adjectives and sub-clauses and, indeed, words normally found in the outer reaches of the dictionary." Or this: "Hollinghurst writes in The Spell with rare tenderness and accuracy about the effect of the drug ecstasy on a man approaching middle age, but he reserves his real energy for the maintenance of a rich, low-key comedy without ever descending into farce. His novel is, however, precisely the type of English book which young novelists and many critics in the 1970s deplored, where adultery and drinks parties and mild sexual disruptions become the dramatic center. As England burned, so to speak, the English novel slowly smoldered. For novelists such as Salman Rushdie and James Kelman, such complacency was a godsend, dry kindling waiting for a conflagration. While The Spell is perfect in its way, a novelist as intelligent as Hollinghurst could not have had any desire to repeat the exercise."

Everybody who really cares about what you can do with the novel these days should read Hollinghurst seriously. This piece shows just why this is the case. What it really makes me ashamed of is that I've never read any of Toibin's fiction! I must remedy this at once (once, that is, I have written the wretched paper about Lord Monboddo that I must deliver at the penitential affair known as the MLA, the massive conference in literary studies which takes place every year between Christmas and New Year's).

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

A little culture

Mostly I've been reading students' papers--it's that time of year. But I did have time to take up two recommendations from my friend Nico. The first was a wonderfully good Messiah at St. Thomas Fifth Avenue, with uncanny boys' choir & lovely period orchestra. The second--I'm only halfway through but I'm salivating in excitement at what an excellent, excellent book it is--isSet This House in Order, by Matt Ruff. I can't wait to read all his other books too! How did I miss hearing about this before?

Highbrow Fight Club

An extremely funny article about n+1 mag in the Observer. (Thanks to Maud for the link.) The best line is about my dear friend Marco, the "effete intellectual" of the bunch (it's not quite clear to me which one of these editors is the heartthrob...). This is in response to Elizabeth Merrick's comment on the male-dominated nature of the magazine:

"How can they possibly call us chest-thumping Neanderthals?" mused Mr. Gessen. "I mean—have they looked at Marco?" Mr. Roth’s feline features and wild Jew-fro make for the kind of profile you picture caricatured on a Barnes and Noble bag: the languid eyes, the pallor, the graceful arabesques of a cigarette-bearing hand, the suggestion of innumerable allergies, the diminutive man’s proud hauteur.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

The most amazing thing

that I have heard for ages. Digitized books aren't the be-all and end-all (real books are better), but this collaboration between Google and a number of major research libraries sounds stupendous.

Monday, December 13, 2004

This profile

of Dan Brown is one of the funniest things I've seen for ages. I have a soft spot for this guy--there is something very benign about his books (much superior to Grisham's, too) and how wholeheartedly he believes in them. I can only imagine what his singing-songwriting must have produced...

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Reckless

Saw Reckless (by Craig Lucas, at the Biltmore Theatre) on Saturday night, about which the less said the better, I fear. Dinner afterwards at the Russian Samovar on 52nd St., a wonderful and decadent spread.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Female noir

I've just read two good novels by Stella Duffy, Calendar Girl and Beneath the Blonde. I'm not wholly convinced that the method both of these adopt--telling a main story about the investigator in alternation with chapters from an initially puzzling point of view, in one case that of the stalker/murderer, in the other that of the murder victim's girlfriend--is the best way of doing things. But the writing's fun, the characters appealing and well drawn and the sensibility's very appealing.

Friday, December 10, 2004

A revenger's tragedy

I've just finished a wonderful novel by Kevin Wignall, For the Dogs. It's got a lot in common with his first one--great prose style, real elegance, trimmed-down super-version of those somewhat bloated Ludlum-LeCarre tomes, but more interested in psychology and families and whether it's possible to return to the fold after suppressing feeling & living in isolation. But it's different in great ways, too. It's like a rewriting of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, only in reverse: Ella is made a kind of "creature" by the execution of her family, and she undergoes a kind of backwards evolution that is matched by the coming-into-humanity of the hit man Lucas. But that is an overly fancy way of describing a really great novel!

Over some years I have developed an Xmas present plan that I can live with. Nobody in my family really cares--I mean, you can genuinely just say "oh, I didn't get anything for anybody this year" & there's no sneaking resentment or annoyance. My brothers for instance sometimes come up with quite lavish presents, sometimes don't get around to it (I've still got the chrome Cuisinart food processor that Jon bought in identical models for me and our other brother one flush year). You get the picture. But what I do is order a whole bunch of books from Amazon earlier in December--a mix of books I've already read that I predict the recipients will like (this includes The Guards by Ken Bruen [I wanted The White Trilogy as well but Amazon was predicting a 1-2 month delivery date and it messed up my free shipping, so I had to cancel]] and Deadfolk by Charlie Williams for Jon) and books that I want to read myself but can't really justify buying in hardback unless it's to give away (cf. Kate Atkinson's Case Histories for my mom, which is why I had it to read the other day; etc. etc.) I think For the Dogs will go to Jon's girlfriend. This is a very selfish but extremely satisfying way of buying Xmas presents. Most of the stuff people buy is all junk.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

A calming evening

Very satisfactory evening. A good play called Rodney's Wife at Playwrights Horizons; a good dinner at Chez Josephine; and then I came home and instead of doing what I should have, which is try and go to sleep right away, I read straight through the lovely, lovely novel that is Kate Atkinson's Case Histories. Oh, if only all detective fiction was as good as this book! It shows you why the genre classification is fairly pointless--this is an excellent book--wholly engaging and likeable and sad and touching. Now I only have 6 hours to sleep in but it was well worth it.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

a horrible review!

My friend Nico has just alerted me to a truly horrible review posted of my novel on Amazon by a character called "Gender Madge." Check it out (yes, I'm mortifying myself by quoting, but I am 95% sure it must be a practical joke--in the other [also v. hostile] review posted, Gender Madge self-identifies as "a mature student of gender studies in Adelaide Australia"--surely I would remember if I had had such a student in one of my not-very-huge lecture courses at Columbia?!?):

Heading: "Thought I'd heard the last of Jenny Davidson ..., December 4, 2004"
Review (by "Gender Madge"): "I used to have to listen to this ghastly, humourless woman's dreary lectures at Columbia. But even they were better than this rubbish. Why do people who know nothing about London insist on writing about it without checking anything out? Ms Davidson was always a stickler for checking sources, as I recall. So why for Pete's sake didn't she send this to somebody in England to review for factual plausibility? I'm an Aussie who lived in London for a year and I can see the holes. Anyway, even is such matters don't bother you, the 'science' in this alleged novel is ridiculous and the writing simply terrible."

!!! Seems to me that there are many legitimate criticisms that might be made of my teaching and/or my fiction writing, but that these surely aren't the ones that would come to mind?!? How awful... Aren't you supposed to have to use "real names" now for reviews?

Monday, December 06, 2004

Cyclops and nematodes

Just finished reading Mutants--I literally couldn't tear myself away from it, it's midnight and I've got a big stack of papers still to read but there was no other choice. This is an excellent, excellent book. I think the opening chapters--which focus much more closely on these questions about developmental embryology that I find so fascinating--are the best of all. The later ones felt more familiar in terms of their material, and there are probably other better accounts of gender differentiation and of aging, for instance. But the writing is absolutelly lovely--I can't wait to read what this guy writes next! And there's a very thoughtful conclusion that tackles several highly controversial topics with rare grace and elegance.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Waylaid!

I finished preparing my lecture for tomorrow and then picked up something to read while I ate a sandwich before returning to comment on paper drafts. But I was completely waylaid by what is the most magical book I have read for ages (and yes, it was a counter-intuitive choice for reading and eating--there is something agreeably unsettling about all this), Armand Marie Leroi's truly excellent Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body. Everyone should read this book! It's stupendous! Only you might not want to read it if you're pregnant....

I surprised myself

by enjoying Julia Glass's Three Junes very much indeed. It's a well-written and strangely moving book--it's not at all the kind of book I usually like (let's just say it compares very favorably to Michael Cunningham's The Hours and Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club, two books that left me completely unmoved--the only thing I liked about the former was the scene of throwing the cake in the trash...). A few passages I especially liked (and where you can see the very fine writing in the service of character development and various themes of the book).

a man's description of fixing a puppy's hernia by hand when he was a boy: "I still recall the sensation of pushing the lump of flesh back through the muscle wall in that taut little belly, using just the tip of my right middle finger. It felt like forcing a marble into an elastic velvet pouch."

a description of a woman (later a professional graphic designer) whose husband stops wanting sex and starts to take his collection of art books to bed with her instead: "A habit born of pride, but it led to her fascination with fonts and layouts and margins. She didn't like looking too long at the art, because art was what she ought to be doing but wasn't. (She would choose, increasingly, books about dead artists so that she did not have to agonize over the possibility that they were, at that very moment, doggedly producing more work.)"

"The Earth Moved"

Here's my review in The Village Voice of two "intimate histories"--a term that surely should be banned from publishers' catalogs for years to come. One of the books was superb, the other terrible.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Two plays

in two days. Sort of a lot on top of the normal work stuff. However, both well worth it, in different ways. Last night, Sheridan's The Rivals at Lincoln Center Theater. This is an extremely funny play and I'd say it's a very good production--I've always got a few quibbles about these 18th-century things (one or two pretty sketchy English accents--why can't they just do it in American accents?!?) but it's extremely enjoyable, and with some excellent acting. Tonight, Michael Frayn's Democracy. I'd been looking forward to this for ages but it was something of a disappointment. The actor playing Gunter Guillaume (the spy who's at the center of the play) wasn't so great, but the whole play is very talky and reminds you too much of a cheesy bio-pic. So it was thought-provoking and sometimes quite interesting, but I don't think the whole thing hangs together. Beautiful set, though...

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Just two more weeks

I'm in the home stretch as far as teaching goes. In the drama course, our last sequence includes a number of different treatments of the theater of empire: Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, Thomas Southerne's theatrical adaptation of Behn's novella, a great recent stage adaptation of both by the British-Nigerian writer Biyi Bandele, some of Edmund Burke's speeches impeaching the governor-general of the East India Company, Warren Hastings, and finally Richard Brinsley Sheridan's play Pizarro, about the conquest of Mexico. Plus a little Artaud for good measure. In the graduate class, three more novels to go (Frances Burney's Evelina, Jane Austen's Emma and Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, plus miscellaneous criticism by Adorno and Bourdieu. I've got several other books to read for 'school' (namely, Seth Koven's recent book Slumming and eighteenth-century novelist Sarah Scott's Millenium Hall). Plus the usual run of talks and meetings and such. I am desperate to read a trashy novel or two but I can see it's going to have to wait...

Friday, November 26, 2004

Ken Bruen interviewed by Ray Banks

This interview is great! (Link via Sarah Weinman.)

A strange feeling

I read an excellent novel, Pernille Rygg's The Butterfly Effect, but it gave me the extremely strange feeling that I was reading a novel by my separated-at-birth Norwegian twin! This is a great book--looking forward to the next one too--it's reminiscent of Peter Hoeg's Smilla's Sense of Snow and also of my own novel Heredity. I have a minor obsession with this Scandinavian thing--I liked The Butterfly Effect especially because of the Oslo setting and the smart, emotionally damaged female narrator.

I also read Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club. It was OK. I didn't hate it, but I certainly didn't love it. It's minor. I am curious as to whether her other novels are more substantial--probably worth a look, anyway. But I definitely won't be adding it to the syllabus for my Jane Austen seminar this spring (that syllabus is already packed full, anyway).

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Dame Edna

I was skeptical, but it turns out that Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance is good clean family fun! Seriously, if you're looking for something edgy, obviously this isn't it, but it's genuinely funny and engaging and just what you'd want if you had a bunch of people who wanted something satisfying and Broadway-ish and sort of middlebrow in a good way. We had dinner afterwards in the enclosed garden at Le Madeleine; the whole dinner was excellent, but I had a lemon custard for dessert that was the most delicious sweet I have had for ages.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

"It's not so much accent as rhythm that gives us away. Where stresses fall, the momentum towards sentence's end, pauses on nouns or verbs"

Just finished James Sallis's Cypress Grove. This is an amazing book. (I was tipped off to it by Ken Bruen, who as far as I am concerned is a genius with impeccable literary taste.) Excellent, excellent noir. Wonderful first-person narration. Elegant weaving-together of past and present narratives to sum up a life. Imagine a more lyrical version of Pete Dexter. This is a fantastic novel! Must get all of his others from the library ASAP. This is ridiculously better, too, than much of what's out there in the detective fiction aisles--why isn't this guy more famous?!? (Or maybe I've just been oblivious to it. But seriously, get this book and read it, you won't regret it.)

"Landslide!"

Finished the rest of The Line of Beauty. It won't be to everyone's taste--and no, I'm not talking about the coke-and-gay-sex aspect of it, just the verging-on-overblown aestheticism. I know a lot of people who are just unwilling to read books written in this kind of a backward-harking style. (For instance, I don't know that I'd recommend it to Kevin Wignall, who "detested . . . 'GB84' by David Peace, 'Cloud Atlas' by David Mitchell, 'Notes on a Scandal' by Zoƫ Heller, 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time' by Mark Haddon - all of them simply awful"--link from
Jennifer Jordan via Sarah Weinman. My brothers wouldn't have the patience to bother with it. My mom would most likely find the Jamesian style offputting. My dad might read it, because he's interested in British politics in the 1980s, but in the grand scheme of things there are a lot of books I'd be far more likely to recommend to him, for instance, Richard Fortey's Earth: An Intimate History. You get the idea. In fact, I imagine most people I know are relatively unlikely to read this book.)

But it's brilliant. It's really, really good. The description of Thatcher at the party is amazing. The last section of the novel is tragic. The unflattering precision with which Hollinghurst anatomizes each thought and feeling of Nicholas Guest--I don't even know where to begin. Anyway, the Booker judges did well this year. This is a major novel by a fascinating writer. Well worth the time. And yet I am very unlikely to reread it, just because the characters are so relentlessly offputting. Interesting experience.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Winter House

It was an amazing thing--I stopped by the department this afternoon and in my mailbox found Carol O'Connell's Winter House, the latest Mallory novel (a loan from my friend MM). This was about the only thing that would stop me from going home and unwisely going to sleep mid-afternoon, thereby disrupting another night of sleep. It was very good--better, I think, than the last couple--and there is something lovely and retro about having an ice-pick killer. I'm always on the fence about O'Connell--by far her best book was the stand-alone Judas Child--but the Mallory books never quite live up to my expectations. There's something too surreal and stylized about them, and also O'Connell's too taken with her characters and their little non-family closeness. (They're really so much better than Martha Grimes's books that it's unfair to O'Connell to compare them, but I have a similar sense of writers over-invested in their relationship with a set of characters that don't necessarily manage to evoke the same warmth and interest from the reader.) However, this one's well worth reading.

I must read a few more novels this weekend to regain my novel-reading equilibrium, I've been rather starved this last few weeks through working too hard.

This complicated and controversial question

I was just struck by Randa's post at MoorishGirl, quoting an Identity Theory interview with Don Lee that I read earlier in the week and found most engaging and interesting. Randa responds to a comment of Lee's below:

In Robert Birnbaum's interview with Don Lee, they discuss how Lee found time to write, away from his full-time Ploughshares editing gig:

DL:...[T]he way I was able to write the novel is because I don't have children.
RB: [laughs]
DL: I don't know how writers who have children are able to do it, to produce anything.
RB: There's an idea for an anthology. I just saw one today, a collection of stories by writers who live with other writers. So the next one will be Writing With Children.

I write and I have a child.

Today is my son's 8th birthday. About this time 8 years ago, I was an 18 year old college sophomore stretched out on a Connecticut hospital bed, in labor. I would have never imagined that I'd be in Texas, finishing up a novel, now. I just wanted to give birth and finish up my semester.
Writers who have children write, produce, the same way writers without children do. They find a spot, a closet, a room, and a writing tool, and they string words together on essentially borrowed time.

Back to my closet and my son's b-day cupcakes now. Have a good weekend!


Randa's point is a sensible one, and in many ways I completely agree with her. But I feel some need to speak up for Don Lee, who surely was making a modest point about his own accomplishments rather than, really, a generalization about what's possible! (He's really talking in context about how he has balanced his fiction-writing against his rather all-consuming job as editor of Ploughshares; for the whole interview, which is well worth reading, see Identity Theory.)

I don't have children, but a number of my friends at similar stages in their academic careers now have a child or two, usually under the age of five but in several cases rather older. And what I say is that I simply couldn't have my academic career as it is and my academic writing and my fiction writing and a child. If I had the child, one of the other things would have to go, and because the academic career and the academic writing are necessary to me in every sense (i.e. that's how I make a living as well as satisfying various inner needs), the fiction writing is what would have to go for some years. (And probably also a serious scaling-down of my immediate ambitions as a literary scholar--I think it adds up to much the same thing in the end, but the academic career--like so many others--is heavily front-loaded, meaning that you are expected to do a great deal of work in your twenties and thirties, and if you're on a slower clock due to a mix of different responsibilities, it can be very tricky to recoup afterwards.) And that's something I don't think I can handle.

It's just a matter of choices, I guess--we all need certain things and it's a different combination for different people. Margaret Atwood has a great quotation--I wish I had the exact line, it was better phrased than I can do here. I think she was responding to an interviewer's question about why she stopped teaching creative writing at some point in her career. And she says something to the effect of this: "Well, you can have a job and write, and you can write and have a child, and you can have a job and have a child. But you can't write and have a job and have a child." (Rita Dove says something elsewhere that's very similar about choices she made after she had a child.) In a literal sense, of course lots of people can and do write and have a job and have a child. But a very demanding job (assistant professors notoriously don't HAVE such a thing as "spare time"--in fact, it's sort of similar to being a parent in its huge and all-encompassing notion of 24-7 responsibility and hard work...), and a demanding vocation as a writer--well, it's an awful lot on your plate already. And that's what I think Don Lee meant to say.

It's done! (Well, sort of, for now, provisionally)

Just printed out the final version of Dynamite No. 1 and after wrestling with the wretched Cubmail e-mail program also managed to send the file electronically to my agent's lovely assistant. So even though I will still need to take the packet to FedEx tomorrow morning, I am hoping I might get an OK night's sleep with a sense of accomplishment. (Probably not. One of the more peculiar things I noticed as I revised the novel is that I didn't even notice how much I gave my own insane sleeping problems to my main character. Anyone who reads this book and my last one is going to see points of commonalty and make their own deductions about the psyche of its author.... I mean, there's lots that's not me at all, in both books, but this thing of young women who are extremely bad sleepers and wish they didn't have any feelings is pretty clear across the two.)

I initially started this blog as I was finishing an earlier draft and thought I would use this to chronicle the path towards publication. Obviously that was quite premature! I am not going to post anything about the official status of this project until I actually have a publisher. But as soon as I do, this is the first place you'll see it.... I will just have to try and be patient.

My grandmother is a plainspoken north-of-England kind of a lady; I think she was always very blunt in her observations but as she progressed through her 80s she got ridiculously more blunt in a very attractive and hilarious way. (Let's just say she doesn't like my current hairstyle!) One thing she said this summer that struck me was a sort of rumination on her own temperament. She's a good listener, and has always listened quite attentively even to speakers that most people find quite maddening. "People always tell me what a patient person I am," she said. "But I'm not patient at all!" And I'll say the same myself--I think I am widely taken to be an extremely patient person, but really I'm not, I just hide my impatience better than the next person and have excessive levels of self-control.

Wish me luck...

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Just in case you thought my previous post was dogmatic

I'm following the hint at Caleb Crain's blog: "'It would be nice if more blogs would link to my Alice Munro profile,' said Peter, wistfully. While I am obliging, here's a more permanent link to Peter's Alan Hollinghurst interview, too."

And since it didn't copy, here's the Hollinghurst
link.

It's a very good piece. I must confess I have done the terrible thing and read the final section of The Line of Beauty without having finished the middle section! (I always terribly have the temptation to look at the end.) So I should finish the whole thing before I post. But... Alan Hollinghurst is very brilliant, but to me there's some failure of imagination about his books. My idiot way of expressing it is that I want him to write about more likeable protagonists, which is hardly a very fair or intelligent suggestion. But there is some broader question about character in the novel that I can't quite articulate. This guy is so, so smart, as smart as you can imagine someone being (as smart as Henry James!) and yet there is some quite near limit to what he can imagine in terms of a character to focus the narrative around. I think he's a sort of genius. But I want him to keep pushing and see if he can't write something that will not have this sort of emotional cautiousness about it.

It's a really good novel. Read it. I don't think I could possibly write one as good, not in this vein, not at all really. And yet it doesn't have the appeal to me of, oh, The Time of Our Singing, by Richard Powers.

n+1

I am a New York-dweller who's extremely skeptical about readings (I hate being read aloud to, it's much faster and more effective to consume writing on the page; plus you usually have to trek down to the Lower East Side or Brooklyn, a good hour away on the subway from the almost-suburban-in-its-distance-from-stuff Morningside Heights neighborhood I live in), but I went to the n+1 reading at Labyrinth this evening. I'm admittedly biased, but I thought my friend Marco's reading about his relationship with Derrida was much the best thing on the menu.

A question of taste

I'm sort of mesmerized as well as horrified by Jonathan Franzen's claims about Alice Munro in this weekend's NYTBR. Reading it made me feel like an alien from another planet. There is something resolutely and horribly normalizing about this piece! (And I say this as someone who liked The Corrections very much despite sort of wanting not to. It's a very good book. Not my kind of book, but a really excellent book that everybody should read, on the short list of top 20 American novels of last 10 years, say. And I don't mean that to sound insulting, that's my honest assessment! It's a compliment!) Here's what Franzen says about Munro:

Alice Munro has a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America, but outside of Canada, where her books are No. 1 best sellers, she has never had a large readership. At the risk of sounding like a pleader on behalf of yet another underappreciated writer -- and maybe you've learned to recognize and evade these pleas? The same way you've learned not to open bulk mail from certain charities? Please give generously to Dawn Powell? Your contribution of just 15 minutes a week can help assure Joseph Roth of his rightful place in the modern canon? -- I want to circle around Munro's latest marvel of a book, ''Runaway,'' by taking some guesses at why her excellence so dismayingly exceeds her fame.

I basically disagree with everything he says. Alice Munro is an excellent writer. But I can't see by what criteria she's "the best fiction writer now writing in North America." (How can you say this, anyway? There are LOTS of 'best' fiction writers. It's very much a matter of taste, surely?) And how is Munro underappreciated? Uh, I had to read a book of hers in high school. It was fine. She's a good writer. It's not my cup of tea. (It was Lives of Girls and Women. It's republished in Vintage Contemporaries. Yeah, obscure and underappreciated.) Alice Munro's stories are regularly published in the New Yorker. A million people see them! Again, by what standard underappreciated? In what sense does her excellence exceed her fame? She's excellent, yeah. But Franzen admits it in his piece--she cycles around a relatively narrow set of topics, and her style is relatively fixed. She and William Trevor are both wonderful writers. If you gave me the choice of the complete works of Alice Munro versus those of Joyce Carol Oates, I'd take the latter any day. Style can only take you so far. Sensibility, intellectual range, ambition: all those are good things too. Maybe the JCO comparison isn't the clearest. But I feel that there's something in this Franzen-lauding-Munro that is really anathema to all my sensibilities. Anyway, what about the possibility that you can't HAVE a best at all when it comes to fiction? That you've always got to have a lot of crazy different voices?

Saturday, November 13, 2004

What I'm teaching this week

In the drama course, Sheridan's plays "The Rivals" and "The School for Scandal" (both quite excellent as far as I'm concerned); in the graduate seminar, Smollett's "Expedition of Humphry Clinker," a novel that deserves a much wider readership than it seems to get.

Not much good

It's that point in the semester when I can hardly get my head above water to breathe. School's super-busy and I'm desperately trying to finish my novel revisions in the cracks between. (I've just worked for ten hours without stopping but realize I will explode if I keep on working tonight! So I'm going to go out and get the paper & come home to read & fume over the NYTBR.)

It's a pity that the two things I've found time to sneak in over the last few days were both disappointing. I was terribly looking forward to P. B. Kerr's The Akhenaten Adventure, the first volume in a young-adult fantasy trilogy called Children of the Lamp. I think quite well of his novels for adults (Esau and The Grid were pretty absurd & over-the-top, but I liked A Philosophical Investigation and the novels in the Berlin Noir trilogy are good). And I love young-adult fantasy trilogies (Philip Pullman and Garth Nix are my heroes). But this is pretty lame. Well, to be fair, it's for younger kids, and it's very "read-aloud"-y, neither of which things do I particularly like. Call me a humorless American, but I'm not particularly taken with the jokes about the Egyptians, the French and so on. But the main thing is that the characters never really come to life, and there's also no sense of real danger here even at the most supposedly thrilling points of the plot. Compare this to any of Diana Wynne Jones's Chrestomanci books, for instance, and it's easy to see what's missing.

The other thing was less of a disappointment because I had such low expectations to begin with. And indeed Eve Ensler's "The Good Body" is not at all my cup of tea. It's really a sort of a cult, as far as I can tell, like Est or Scientology. (I believe Est=Landmark Forum in this day and age.) Yeah, sure, she's doing a critique, but there is something wretchedly self-defeating about performing this kind of obsessiveness with the flaws of her own body! It manages at one and the same time to be sort of bland and middlebrow and also obnoxiously doctrinaire about feminism. It reminded me of Naomi Wolf's "The Beauty Myth." And no, this is not a compliment.

Work's been much more rewarding than pleasure, in other words. It's not the point of this blog to say much about what I read/hear in work-related contexts, but I will say that Luke Gibbons is a very interesting man and his book about Edmund Burke quite brilliant; and my colleague Joey Slaughter has a powerful argument about human rights and narratives of development but I can't find anything good to link to.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

I feel that I am channeling the ladies of Cupcake!

Just idly checked the Amazon editors' picks for top ten books in Literature & Fiction. Nine of the ten are by white men! (The other is Marilynne Robinson's.) I've read two out of the ten only (Philip Roth and Jonathan Ames), and they're certainly both very good. But it's the pattern of taste that emerges--it's the list you pick if you're a certain kind of guy in your late twenties to mid thirties--what about all the great books by women published this year? What about major books by various writers who might be defined as people of color? I'm not saying it has to be equal representation. I'm saying that this list shows a terribly restricted kind of literary taste. (It's pretty "literary," too, in a way I don't much like.) Cupcake has its work cut out for it....

What I'm teaching this week

In the drama course, David Garrick's "The Jubilee," a bizarre and wonderful musical entertainment in which Garrick transformed the humiliating debacle of the Shakespeare Jubilee at Stratford (the Millennium Dome of the 1760s, so to speak) into a huge success at Drury Lane, plus miscellaneous stuff on acting styles in the 18th century by Joseph Roach and others; in the culture seminar, Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman and criticism by Donna Haraway and some provocative (read nightmarish?) pieces on gender and evolutionary psychology by Steven Pinker and Robert Wright.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Booker judging

Interesting interview with one of the Booker judges, Robert Macfarlane. I agree with lots of what he says, including low quality of Vernon God Little and preference for The Folding Star over The Line of Beauty when it comes to Hollinghurst (though I also agree that surely the right book won this year). This guy comes across as smart, interesting and sympathetic. (God, I'd love to be a Booker judge.... not likely to happen....) However, his favorites do show one troubling pattern. He doesn't think Sarah Hall should have made the short list, and he doesn't mention a single book by a woman on his list of favorites at the end. I really think people are blind to their biases this way, which is why it's so dangerous: women tend to be far more receptive readers of books by men than the other way round.

(Link via The Literary Saloon at the Complete Review, one of my favorite lit blogs.)

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Idle reading

Despite my disparaging remarks earlier, I couldn't help myself from reading two more books by KJ Erickson: The Last Witness and Alone At Night. The last is definitely the best of the four; you can see her skills improving, and the writing is really good in lots of ways. But this is a writer who's willfully ignoring various facts about what makes a good detective novel! Her fatal weakness is for overelaborate plotting. The first of these features an OJ-Nicole-type story (and while the social-justice-detective-novel may not be your favorite, I do find it bizarre that this novel completely ignores any questions either about domestic violence or about racism in America--there's something perverse about sidelining race in a book like this--quite implausible, I think), but the plot twist at the end is literally incredible. The second is better but again somehow invokes an absurd "jungles-of-Vietnam-sniper-hooks-up-with-US-senator" type thing, plus connections made between killings in various places are completely farfetched. The reason this is frustrating is that the books are much better than average in many respects. But the same thing that makes Erickson create a reasonably plausible detective but then give him the name "Marshall Bahr," aka "Mars Bar," nickname "Candyman" (is this even faintly plausible? I don't t hink so) kicks in to unfortunate effect with these plots.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

I prefer happy endings

It's my temperament--and I am also well-acquainted with escapism. The first time I taught this drama lecture course was in fall 2001 and the bawdy comedies of Restoration England really did become an extraordinary way of escaping the terrible sadness of life in New York in September and October 2001. It was like a little oasis twice a week. I had the same thing again this morning--I vanished into a fantasy of Shakspeare in the 18th century. It was particularly apropos because I was lecturing on the Nahum Tate adaptation of King Lear, notorious for (among other things) the happy ending in which Cordelia marries Edgar, Lear happily abdicates his throne to them and so on. But I thought about it and I realize I really do have great sympathy for happy endings. My favorite Richardson novel isn't Clarissa but Sir Charles Grandison (I do love Pamela as well though I can see it is technically inferior in some ways). This is what Samuel Johnson said, in a note to his edition of Lear, about Tate's ending (Tate's version was what you would have seen for over a hundred and fifty years, pretty much, if you went to see Lear in England): "In the present case the publick has decided. Cordelia, from the time of Tate, has always retired with victory and felicity. And, if mys ensations could add any thing to the general suffrage, I might relate, that I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia's death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor."

This is also the appeal of the alternate-history genre, at least if you exclude its most dystopian incarnations. Even The Plot Against America ends with everything going somehow back to normal--a fantasy of restoration. Write a disaster, and then write your world back out of it.

Monday, November 01, 2004

I don't know why

I waste my time with this kind of stuff. OK, it wasn't truly atrocious (I'm talking about KJ Erickson's The Dead Survivors) but it's pretty poorly constructed, quite meandering, and vexed with a ridiculously overelaborate plot. Farfetched serial-killer premise. I've got two more of her books on loan, but think I will skip the next one and just go for the most recent, which I was told is quite good. Of course the truth is that I always need some pretty undemanding books to read on the side. I've got Alan Hollinghurst's Booker-winning latest from the library, but don't have the attention to spare for it; a few other volumes of light reading await; but mostly I just need to read for this week's classes.

In the drama course, we're doing Nahum Tate's adaptation of King Lear (many interesting things about this, but it's notorious chiefly for giving the play a happy ending--Cordelia lives to marry Edgar, etc. etc.), plus miscellaneous critics on Shakespeare in the eighteenth century, including Michael Dobson. In the graduate course, we're reading most of Rousseau's Emile, plus various thought-provoking extracts by Eve Sedgwick, Kate Soper and Thomas Laqueur.

I am currently enjoying Columbia's weird election day holiday--in compensation for not getting Columbus Day or any extra time at Thanksgiving, we get Monday and Tuesday off this week--working fiendishly hard to revise my novel. I'm on chapter 7 of 13 which is pretty reasonable. Must finish before Thanksgiving, preferably by Nov. 15 if humanly possible.

Tomorrow I'm going to vote for the first time. Isn't that awful? But I only got my citizenship in 2000, and moved to NY in August 2000 and didn't get it together to register in time for the last presidential election. I have an 8:30am voting date with my friend Nico. I am deeply pessimistic about the likely outcome but will be delighted if my predictions prove wrong.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

A book or two

Coming back from Philadelphia on Saturday, I bought the hardcover edition of Tamora Pierce's Trickster's Queen. There is something curiously satisfying about young-adult fantasy novels. I don't think Pierce is particularly interesting in terms of prose style, and I don't know that this sequel is as good as the first (Trickster's Choice). But certainly a very enjoyable read--I finished it last night instead of doing any work.

And look out soon for my thoughts on Dan Brown...

I was in Philadelphia with a few colleagues to interview candidates for a position at Columbia. We couldn't get a hotel room in the conference hotel (it was the meeting of the North American Conference on British Studies) but Penn's Center for Advanced Judaic Studies kindly lent us a conference room. The building's right across from Independence Hall and really at this time of year the whole city is ridiculously pretty--the leaves turning, the "quaint" architecture, etc.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

And a review due Thursday

of Earth : An Intimate History (by Richard Fortey, also author of the enchanting--and enchantingly named--Trilobite!) and O: The Intimate History of the Orgasm (by Jonathan Margolis). Witty choice of books by my editor. In return I am hoping he will let me call the review "The Earth Moved." (Obvious and cheesy but pretty much irresistible I think.) Other suggestions are welcome.

What I'm teaching

Shaw's Pygmalion in the drama course; and for the graduate seminar, a miscellaneous heap of writings on language and elocution by Samuel Johnson, Thomas Sheridan, Noah Webster, Tom Paulin and Tom Leonard with a bit of Gramsci thrown in for good measure. In other words, my interests have weirdly converged so that we've got language on the table in both classes on the same day. I am pretty excited....

As a non sequitur, I will also observe that I am proud of never having owned a single Norton Anthology of English Literature.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Writing habits

I was thinking about CAAF's post at Tingle Alley about how writing is hard. When I was drafting my new novel this spring, it all went pretty smoothly in the grand scheme of things but it still felt like very hard work--the image in my head for what I was doing was cutting a usable path through a sugar-cane field with an extremely blunt machete. (I'm not kidding, and this is not writerly affectation. Ten times a day I thought of this and struggled forward. Because even if it's slow and rather back-breaking, you have to do it. Or else there won't be a path, will there?) The writing tip I found most inspirational was one suggested by Garth Nix (see the "Keeping Motivated" section under "How I Write"); keeping a word count and setting sane daily word limits so that you can see the manuscript accumulating without any single superhuman feat of effort.

And here's CAAF's original post. Kevin Wignall says in the comments that he doesn't think writing is hard; I take his point (and his own writing certainly makes it look lovely and easy...), but I still say that this has a lot to do with your temperament. Personally, I find it comforting to think of writing as hard work. Imagine writing and revising a novel as a job like any other big one: building a house, cleaning out a house that somebody lived in for seventy years, raising a child from its first to its second birthday; training to run a marathon, etc. etc. If you think you could do a decent job with any one of these, there is no reason you can't write a perfectly good novel.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

And by the way

I don't know why this NYT story on "Big G.O.P. Bid to Challenge Voters at Polls in Key State" struck me as so particularly horrendous--after all there has been something outrageous/tragic/horrifying/unbelievable pretty much every day in the news for the past, what, 4 years--but this one really takes the cake:

Republican Party officials in Ohio took formal steps yesterday to place thousands of recruits inside polling places on Election Day to challenge the qualifications of voters they suspect are not eligible to cast ballots.
Party officials say their effort is necessary to guard against fraud arising from aggressive moves by the Democrats to register tens of thousands of new voters in Ohio, seen as one of the most pivotal battlegrounds in the Nov. 2 elections.

A few novels

Finished Jim Fusilli's latest novel, Hard, Hard City. Enjoyed it very much. Look forward to reading the first two in the series. Also read an absolutely minor Agatha Christie novel (I'm not sure I'd ever read it before, but the stock "anonymous-letter-writer-in-a-village-with-plot-twist" is such a familiar theme that I may well be wrong), The Moving Finger.

I have a ton of work-related reading this weekend, so I don't anticipate reading many more books, but I must say that two novels by Dan Brown finally passed into my hands and I am having horrible enjoyment of Digital Fortress! Will post more thoughts when I'm done, but I must say it is ful of wonderfully awful sentences. Quite enjoyable to read, though. Certainly much, much higher quality than Grisham.

I caught the Stephen Elliott reading on Thursday night in Brooklyn. It was excellent. I must get a copy of Looking Forward To It: the parts Steve read were hilarious. Also made a mental note to acquire a copy of The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer, which sounds very good if not exactly my cup of tea.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Winding down

After the classic 14-hour Wednesday work-day, I came home and luxuriated in a lovely novel, Jim Fusilli's Tribeca Blues. I am too wiped out to produce any opinions other than that it is a great treat to read a well-written first-person novel about a guy who often takes the 1-9, which has curiously been my train in all my best NY living experiences (the bizarre Hell's Kitchen sublet, which isn't worth going into here but which involved a life-size Hulk Hogan cutout, a plexiglass-topped table full of jellybeans in which living cockroaches could often be seen to walk around as if in a super-sized sugar-lover's ant farm, an oven that just SEETHED with roaches when you opened it up [there were tons of roaches even in the fridge], and a bizarre main tenant who used a red-light, green-light system in the window of the living room to signal to his curious "friends" whether or not it was appropriate to come up; the air-shaft-looking-out studio in the Carteret at 23rd and 7th, a building known to my friends at the time [it was 1991 or so] as "Lobster Palace" due to an injuduciously placed restaurant sign; my current apartment on Riverside Drive, only a few blocks away from one of the murder locations in this novel). Anyway, this book was great, and I've just started on the next one, both loaned to me by my friend M. Either I will rashly stay up and finish it tonight or else I will fall into bed for some much-needed sleep.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

"Tojo. Petain. Batista. De Valera. Arias. Quezon. Camacho. Litvinov. Zhukov. Hull. Welles. Harriman. Dies. Heydrich. Blum. Quisling..."

Finished The Plot Against America : A Novel last night. I don't like it when novels have the subtitle "a novel"! And I wholly disapprove of Roth's decision (or his publishers', who knows, but I suspect it originated with the author) to print the historical appendix at the end of the book. There are many structural reasons never, never to do this with historical novels--surely a brief note would have been enough, if he wanted to clarify, but I think it would be more genuinely chilling without those pages at all.

I quite enjoyed this--there are some great moments, and the setting of Newark in the late 30s is excellent--but I didn't think it was nearly as good as some of his others in the last ten years: I still think that Sabbath's Theater is the best of the ones I've read, and I loved The Human Stain too (but I haven't read the other two in that trilogy, American Pastoral and I Married a Communist--must check them out, though). I think what put me off this one a little was the curious flatness of the tone. It's written in the voice of the adult, not the boy who's described, and the language is really quite sterile. I found myself thinking several times of Pelecanos' Hard Revolution and noting that there is no detail quite so memorable in Roth's novel as Pelecanos' quiet observation about the ordinary Greek diners of the 1960s that the Heinz bottles on the tables are full of a cheaper ketchup that is sugarier and saltier and more vinegary than the label would suggest. (I wish I'd taken this quotation out while I still had the book, it stuck with me for some reason.)

(NB I can now say having read Roth's novel that Stanley Crouch's criticism of the book for excluding black people and the problem of race is actually just totally misguided. The book's really a fable rather than a realist novel, and the way the point-of-view is set up--little Philip Roth all grown up--it would be wholly out of keeping with the character formed by the milieu he describes to talk more than occasionally about race relations. Which come up briefly, but which just aren't central to this particular book, and that's the way it is...)

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Alan Garner in the Guardian

An excellent profile of Alan Garner in the Guardian. I loved this guy's books when I was younger--they really are special--this reminds me to get them again now. I reread a couple a few years ago and they are still truly excellent. I think there may be a few later ones that I haven't read before. And the article included mention of another book I read a little while ago and really liked:

Francis Spufford, in his memoir of childhood reading, The Child that Books Built (2002), praises Garner's achievement in 'reintroducing myth into the bloodstream of daily life'. He saw Garner as part of an amazing generation of talent at work as the 1960s ended and in the 1970s, citing William Mayne, Peter Dickinson, Jill Paton Walsh, Joan Aiken, Diana Wynne-Jones, Rosemary Sutcliffe and Leon Garfield.

Spufford's book took me back into the world of my childhood reading in the 1970s--he must be just a few years older than I am, and I read a lot more English stuff than American, so it was like reading a book written by myself in some altered state. It is true that Dickinson, Aiken, Wynne-Jones, Sutcliffe, Garner et al. really transported me, then and now. It would be amazing to write books like that.

A little light reading

I've got a monumental amount of work to do this weekend--and have been crazy busy all week, too--but of course there's always time to squeeze in a few novels. On the recommendation of my friend M., who lent it to me, I read KJ Erickson's Third Person Singular. Quite good, but marred by various implausibilities. Will check out further ones in the series--the Minneapolis setting isn't bad. And rather better, I think, was Carol Lea Benjamin's Fall Guy. I was wary of this one--somebody should tell the publicity folks at William Morrow that describing this woman's first novel on the flap copy as "elevating the canine mystery novel out of the lighthearted realm of cozy" is NOT a very good recommendation. However a better way of describing it would be to say it's PI NY noir--the dog is a very fully realized character (and certainly a far more plausible one than the eight-year-old son in Erickson's book, who serves a similar function), the narrator is an attractive character, and it thoughtfully treats the post-9/11 NY thing. I would strongly recommend this one to anyone who likes, oh, Sara Paretsky and Dick Francis. It's very well-written. (Though it's true that reading all those novels by Ken Bruen and those other guys I got tipped off to from Sarah Weinman's website (Charlie Williams and Kevin Wignall and such) has spoiled me for a normally good crime novel and impossibly raised my expectations...)

Halfway through The Plot Against America. I wish there hadn't been quite so much hype--I love Philip Roth in general, and I'm certainly enjoying the book, but I'm finding there to be something a bit sterile about the writing. I'll see what I think when I'm finished.

Must get to work now. I've had two rather exciting invitations--of completely different kinds--in the last two days; one of which will involve some work in December and January, the other of which plunged me into a frenzy right now. And wreaks further havoc with my weekend work schedule. However, I'm not complaining, it's all good and also I've had many years of life where I was tempted to laugh in the face of people who say things like "Oh, there aren't enough hours in the day" or "Life's too short." If you are rather depressed, there are always too many hours in the day and it is impossible to imagine feeling that life's too short! So this last year or two has been a great improvement.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Monday, October 11, 2004

Why I tactically decided not to reread E. Nesbit

This really excellent story reminded me that I was wise not to reread E. Nesbit before writing Dynamite No. 1--I can see just from the sentences quoted here how much my style must owe to her voice. I loved those books when I was a kid, and will read them again when I'm safely done with this rewrite.

"The People Have Spoken, and Rice Takes Offense"

I clicked on this Times story because the headline made me hope it might be Condoleeza; however, it's just a rather belated story about Anne Rice's Amazon rant.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Verbal tics

Anthony Holden takes the words right out of my mouth in his Observer review of Will in the World and Secret Shakespeare: "Irritated by [Greenblatt's] chummy habit of calling his subject 'Will', I found my blue pencil also circling his high index of 'may well's, 'could have's, 'no doubt's and 'likely's - three or four to the average page. This may be an occupational hazard of Shakespeare biography, but there are writerly ways around allowing it to become so intrusive. Such nitpicks apart, this suave book deserves to become a standard work in the scholarly tradition of the Victorian critic Edward Dowden, offering an elegant summation of the current state of an evolving art."

This week I'm teaching

George Farquhar's The Beaux Stratagem and Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, plus miscellaneous writings by and about the early anthropologists.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

BBC NEWS - Deconstruction icon Derrida dies

One of my students just forwarded this news. The BBC's story doesn't have much to it (the usual hints of dissatisfaction--"But in 1992, staff at Cambridge University in the UK protested against plans to award him an honorary degree, denouncing his writings as 'absurd doctrines that deny the distinction between reality and fiction'"). It's an extraordinary thing to think about, the life of Derrida being over. For anyone like me educated in literature in the 1980s and 1990s, Derrida is probably the single most powerful critical influence--of course it depends on your intellectual temperament, others would say Foucault or I suppose Barthes or some number of others--but because my core interest really is in language and argument, Derrida's writing really is the thing that shapes my thought about all kinds of things, though nobody would call me a Derridean. My favorite essay of his is still "Signature Event Context." But I'm fond of the stuff in Grammatology as well, and was just rereading the "Plato's Pharmacy" essay in Dissemination. Thumbed through his essay on Celan (titled "Shibboleths") a month ago, reminded of how I need to put in some time with Celan without being under the shadow of DeMan and all who loom a little too large when you're a graduate student at Yale....

Anyway, I don't have any personal stories or anecdotes. I do remember my college tutor M. telling me a story about meeting Derrida at a cocktail party and telling him about the American insecticide called D-con....

The evening's entertainment

Just got back from the decent but not spectacular Richard III at the Public Theatre. (Production design very good, however: excellent lighting, sound, etc. Including good handling of that impossible dream sequence at the end.) Then had a superb dinner at Butter. Fontina and chanterelle lasagne, an apple dulce de leche dessert--both supremely delicious, with very fresh & tasty local-type ingredients (I mean, I don't know if that apple came from NY state or not, but that's the vibe). Over-the-top but very attractive decor, too. Good stuff.

High point of the day was a meeting with my lovely agent, who had excellent and very detailed comments on the manuscript of Dynamite No. 1. Now to work! Plan is to get it back to her before Thanksgiving.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Scandinavian detective novels

Karin Fossum's Don't Look Back was quite good; at any rate I would read others by her. I've got a few others from the library that I will report on as I read them, mostly on the basis of recent recommendations in the TLS.

Clare Crespo, Hey There, Cupcake! Author

I must get this demented book about cupcakes. As far as I'm concerned, the more lurid the icing, the better. Did I post about this already?

Cupcakes

Not the actual ones, which I also like a lot (did I link to that exciting Cupcake recipe book, or was it a thwarted attempt from my office computer), but a lovely mention by Lauren Cerand at the cupcake blog. I really, really enjoyed reading for their series, and I like the whole concept of what they've got going there.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

"People named Tinkerbell name their daughters Susan"

Went to the gallery opening for my friend Nico's mother, Bunny Harvey--these pictures are really ravishing.

Then came home and read the stories in Smoke and Mirrors. Neil Gaiman is a ridiculously good writer, though I prefer novels to short stories. My favorite from this collection: "One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock." But there's a lot of really funny and smart stuff here.

My guilty pleasure reading this week was the final volume in the Magician trilogy by Trudi Canavan, The High Lord. I found the trilogy as a whole somewhat disappointing: obviously I liked it well enough to read all three volumes, but the writing is undistinguished and the characters and the world created in the end don't seem very distinctive either. But it is possible I've just been spoiled for all such things by the truly amazing Sabriel trilogy by Garth Nix. Garth Nix is superb. And I have always found that young-adult fantasy has an appeal that only the very best fantasy novels for adults have: i.e. the writing is often rather classier, and the characters more compelling. I think reading those Sabriel books was part of my inspiration for the trilogy I'm writing now (along with Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. It is rare to find books you read as an adult that have the magic of the books you read as a child--this is one way of describing my ongoing quest for really magical and mesmerizing books--but both Nix and Pullman are writing stuff that I would have been truly obsessed with had I read it at age eight. Well, I'm obsessed now, I've read both of those trilogies three times at least all the way through!

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Writing as a woman

Interesting interview: Robert Birnbaum talks to Jennifer Finney Boylan about her memoir.

(I want to read this book. My only question is why anyone who was choosing would actually pick the name Jennifer, which is my most loathed thing in the world?!?)

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

This week's teaching

Gulliver's Travels (a book of which it can safely be said that pretty much everyone knows the concept--and many people have seen the cartoon--but very few have actually read it; they're missing out, it's superb) and Congreve's The Way of the World.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Colm Toibin reviews Stephen Greenblatt's 'Will in the World'

A thoughtful review in the NYTBR of Greenblatt's Will in the World. I haven't read the book, but I did hear its author deliver an excerpt a year or two ago at Columbia. And there are some fundamental issues with this kind of speculative biography that were not addressed in (for instance) Adam Gopnik's outrageously glowing paean in the New Yorker. Obviously this is a book well worth reading; I'm going to get hold of a copy soon and check it out. But I appreciated Toibin's candor on the limitations of this approach (as well as the fact that it clearly didn't stop him from appreciating and singling out for readers the book's many good qualities):

Almost every step forward in reconstructing [Shakespeare's] life involves a step backward into conjecture and a further step sometimes into pure foolishness. Greenblatt discovers, for example, that Shakespeare's father in his official capacity was responsible for paying two groups of touring players who came to the town in 1569. Would the father ''have taken his 5-year-old son to see the show?'' Greenblatt asks. The answer is as emphatic as the question is banal: We do not know. In the following paragraph, nonetheless, Greenblatt writes as though Shakespeare had in fact attended the play. ''His son, intelligent, quick and sensitive, would have stood between his father's legs. For the first time in his life William Shakespeare watched a play.''

Saturday, October 02, 2004

A highlight of the week

was going with my friend A. to see David Remnick interview Seymour Hersh as part of the New Yorker festival. It went really well. Fascinating stuff about the internal culture of the military, especially the really good guys: because of my job, I found most compelling of all a very eloquent moment when Sy went off on how the high-up military types really do feel themselves in loco parentis with those kids (no thing more dangerous than an 18-year-old with a gun, he pointed out) and that the awfulness of the Abu Ghraib thing--the horror felt by officers thinking about it--is that part of their job is to stop those kids like Lynndie England from debasing themselves like that and undergoing a kind of moral degeneration that can't really be reversed. I wish I had his exact words, this doesn't quite do it justice. At any rate, a very interesting evening.

What I read this week

Everything went pretty smoothly this week in the end. And though I was crazy busy, I still had time to read three novels (the train ride to and from New Haven justified some fiction). All excellent, as follows:

Charlie Williams's Deadfolk--a lovely book. I can't wait to give this to my brother J. who will love it. The writing is amazing, it's an excellent first-person voice, very funny, very dark in terms of violence. I liked this book very much indeed. I am especially fond of first-person narration, and this is a superb example of the way that even a complete sociopath becomes perversely endearing if you get the voice right.

Ken Bruen's Hackman Blues. Another really good one. I am amazed by the way this guy writes these first-person voices as well: yes, his narrators tend to have a sort of family resemblance to one another, but this one is great & distinctively different from every other one too. The prose really sings, there's a way Bruen's books move at a fast clip without ever becoming overly stylized in the way I associate with James Ellroy or (worse) Kathy Reichs.

And last but not least, George Pelecanos's Hard Revolution. Pelecanos is great. He's not my absolute favorite--in this vein, I prefer Richard Price, who really is the master (and it's possible that Samaritan was his best yet). And in some sense he cares more about reconstructing a time and place and less about the language itself--he's a great writer, but he's not a stylist in the way that (for instance) both Williams and Bruen really are. However, he really is unbeatable on these scenes of Washington in the 60s and 70s. Very good stuff. I am especially fond of books where you learn the backstory of characters and how their fates unfolded from earlier times, so this was a good one. (Interesting move, writers doing this in a series--I approve because it breaks what might otherwise be a bit of a rut--again, a good example is the latest Jack Reacher novel by Lee Child. This is a series that's just gotten better and better, and I loved getting the tale of how Reacher lost his faith in the military.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

The craziest book I've read for a while

And it's not by Ken Bruen, either! No, I'm talking about Robinson Crusoe. Words can't explain it, you've simply got to read some of the book. But here is a small taste:

I descended a little on the Side of that delicious Vale, surveying it with a secret Kind of Pleasure, (tho' mixt with my other afflicting Thoughts) to think that this was all my own, that I was King and Lord of all this Country indefeasibly, and had a Right of Possession; and if I could convey it, I might have it in Inheritance, as compleatly as any Lord of a Mannor in England. I saw here Abundance of Cocoa Trees, Orange, and Lemon, and Citron Trees; but all wild, and very few bearing any Fruit, at least not then: However, the green Limes that I gathered, were not only pleasant to eat, but very wholesome; and I mix'd their Juice afterwards with Water, which made it very wholesome, and very cool, and refreshing.

I must write about this book...

Monday, September 27, 2004

In which I get a flattering compliment

Well, the internet surely does feed the lowest forms of narcissism, but a friend just forwarded me this link in which I learn that Susanna Clarke and her husband--novelist Colin Greenland--found my review of Jonathan Strange the most "perceptive and erudite" so far... I am ashamed of myself for being so pleased!

Sunday, September 26, 2004

This week's teaching

In my drama course, it's Etherege's The Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter (a ridiculously good subtitle for a play). In my graduate seminar, it's Robinson Crusoe and various criticism, including an excerpt from Robert Young's book Colonial Desire.

Extras for this week: a seminar for high-school teachers on Sheridan's The Rivals, to prepare them for an upcoming production at Lincoln Center Theater. A talk at Yale on Thursday: the first time I'm trying out the "Shibboleths: Breeding and the Elocutionists" piece. And on Friday morning, a talk on Jane Austen to parents of Columbia first-year students.

My review of Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis and The Invisible Century: Einstein, Freud and the Search for Hidden Universes is due tomorrow as well.

Must get some sleep...

Frivolity

I've been working way too hard to read anything much, but just detoured from work stuff to race through Deborah Crombie's Now May You Weep. I've got a soft spot for her books, though they are truthfully (as the friend who loaned this one to me says) awfully in the category of "British-procedurals-written-by-Anglophilic-Americans." This one's in the Highlands, with lots of color about whiskey distilleries: you can imagine the tax writeoff that year for a big trip to Scotland...

Monday, September 20, 2004

The worst thing I've heard all day

Well, it's almost certainly not, but words can't express my horror at this revelation from a piece on fund-raising in The Chronicle of Higher Education.. Says Mark Drozdowski, writing about the reports university fund-raisers write after talking to potential donors, "I've written my fair share of call reports, and have seen plenty more. Along with relaying the facts of the meeting (such as the date and the nature of the visit), the reports feature fund raisers' interpretations and recommendations. We might comment on a person's home, noting items that imply affluence. We might convey bits of conversation that we feel give insight into someone's capacity to give. We might suggest strategies such as invitations to certain campus events or membership on some committee. Or we might outline a solicitation plan involving key members of the administration. "

Items that imply affluence?!? BITS OF CONVERSATION?!?!?

Friday, September 17, 2004

On a totally different note

Just finished Caitlin Kiernan's really wonderful new novel Murder of Angels. It's a sort of sequel to Silk, but I don't think you'd need to read the first one in order to enjoy this, which recapitulates crucial elements from the first from an almost wholly different point of view. Great writing, great imagination. Though I agree with a few of the amazon reviewers that I prefer the real-world parts of the book to the sheer fantastical ones, which are reminiscent of the most fanciful parts of Jonathan Carroll's books, also most enjoyable (to me, at any rate) when they concentrate on the uncanny elements of the real world rather than making up alternate ones out of whole cloth. (Thanks BTW to the generous Ginger Clark for sending it to me.)

Book cover

Just checked Amazon UK and found what I hope will be the final cover for the UK edition of Heredity. I saw a lot of different ones--I liked them all, in different ways, but it was amazing what a wide range they included. There was a rather lovely Bridget-Jones-in-a-good-way one, with just the face of a depressed-looking girl; there was a slightly surreal department-store-mannequin-clone one in black and white; there were a set of three that responded to a certain book chain's interest/request for emphasis on the historical-crime thing by having Jack-the-Ripper-type dark alley and shady figures and London maps. If I was higher-tech, I'd paste these all in, but it's basically beyond me, and some I only saw in hard copy. Pretty exciting, though... I'm going to e-mail the folks at Serpent's Tail and see what's going on, if anything.

Five-letter one-word titles using Scrabble letters

Just read two more Bruen Brixton novels, Blitz and Vixen. I am desperate to find out what will happen to Falls! I guess the point of this noir thing is that the characters you like often come to a bad end. I'm not sure if there are more yet of these Brixton books, must investigate. I still can't believe I hadn't heard of this guy before I saw him mentioned on Sarah Weinman's site. Genius. They're so literary and funny and sad, it's ridiculous. My only complaint: why do small presses do such a terrible job proofreading? There is a typo or a misspelled word or a punctuation glitch on almost every page of these books, it's super-annoying--surely there are lots of people in the world like me who would proofread for free if it was for books this good. The Do Not Press is admirable but should take care of this problem!

I've just read Kevin Wignall's first novel, People Die. I will get his next one ASAP! This is a wonderfully well-written book, and filled me with envy that someone else done what I wholly failed to do with mine, which is start out publishing your first novel with everything already working seamlessly well & sounding like a pro. The main character is appealing--I like these low-key charismatic largely amoral guys in their late 20s or early 30s--and the settings & psychological stuff all very compelling, but I was especially impressed by what an elegant and short book this is. The spy thriller has in its past some elegant thrillers--in fact pretty much up until the 60s international thrillers were as likely to be short & well-crafted as any other kind of novel--but the Ludlum-Clancy model involves many, many hundreds of pages and the writing ranges from competent to clunky. This book has none of that feel, yet it captures the appeal of, say, Ludlum at his best. I'm thinking chiefly of The Bourne Identity, which always seemed to me far superior to any of his other novels--I read all of Ludlum in an obsessive fit at age 16, on the recommendation of my dearly beloved boyfriend Anton, murdered in 1998. I hadn't been in touch with him for some years before he died, but certain things always make me think of him very strongly--his literary tastes in high school ran chiefly to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Kurt Vonnegut and Peter Matthiesen, but he was a passionate devotee of Robert Ludlum and pressed on me one after another those battered paperbacks that could be found in basements all over America in the 1980s, The Matarese Circle and ... but I won't go on. I have no doubt that Anton would have loved People Die. In fact, I'm tempted to send his parents a copy and tell them how much it made me think of him.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

A dingo ate my baby

Brixton Bruen: A White Arrest, Taming the Alien, The McDead. About halfway through the first, I thought: well, not so much my cup of tea as the Jack Taylor novels. (I especially like first-person narratives. And those Guards books are really insanely good that way.) However, by the third here I was wholly won over. More to come...

Saw an interesting dead puppet show this evening. Puppet part good--very elegant, very creepy--but awful voiceover thing by Bill Irwin just pretentious. Obvious insights cloaked in academic prose. Why do they stick this stuff in? The music and the puppets were really great otherwise...