Monday, August 30, 2004

Maud's guests

Well, two complementary opinions about snark and fiction and reviewing at Maud Newton's blog. Is it just a coincidence that the names of the two authors rhyme? I agree with elements of Emma Garman's post (definitely there's a place for snarky humor in book reviews, esp. if it's making a serious point, and the blandness of the usual NYTBR is not to be believed--British-style reviewing definitely preferable). But I'm on the whole more in sympathy with Sean Carman's: surely the Julavits essay was "widely misunderstood" (I wish The Believer would reintroduce a word-length limit! When you write a long essay like that, it only increases the chance you'll say something that provokes outrage and wild disagreement), and also the use of Monica Ali and Stephen Elliott as examples of novelists that wouldn't deserve the take-down method of reviewing.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Forgive redundancy on previous posts

Clearly I lack patience and should wait longer for posts to show up...

I'm off now to the bookstore to get a copy of this, the great canonical book I am most mortified by not having read and which I have suddenly realized can't wait a minute longer! However if this edition isn't available at my local indy bookstore(s), I will order it from Amazon anyway.

Jonathan Strange

Blogger is conspiring to prevent me from posting any thoughts on this wonderful book, which completely lived up to my expectations. Won't say any more as I still have to write the review. I'm just hoping this post doesn't vanish like the two previous...

Since my last post seems to have vanished...

Don't know what happened--it has gone to the same place as my mysterious missing Discworld post of late July--anyway I've finished Jonathan Strange and it completely lives up to the hype. Won't say more since I'm reviewing it. But I loved it.

SABBATICAL IS OVER! However I had a realization on Thursday afternoon (at my office--mold infestation now cleaned out, huge dehumidifer chugging away, surrounded by curly-because-of-damp stacks of xeroxes awaiting compilation into my fall-semester course packs) that I was going to be very unhappy so long as I still thought I should be writing all day every day, but that it's all actually pretty fun if you can just get your head around it. I was SO EXCITED when I started grad school, it was ridiculous; but in general, I was always so bored by the end of August that I couldn't wait for school to start. Going and buying new notebooks and pencils and things; a new back-to-school haircut (I've just made an appointment for Tuesday, I was agonizing about whether to grow my hair out to its natural color & mid-shoulder length that's my default do, but no--I am keeping up the color & just venturing out into a slightly different short haircut, more like a bob...); the new books for new classes; all that good stuff. So I am now in the mood to welcome the new graduate students & generally get back into the school thing.


Well, this certainly lived up to its advance billing. I loved it. Won't say more, since I still have to write a review.

I had an interesting moment on Thursday afternoon in my office when I looked around me--stacks of xeroxes for my fall semester course packs, e-mails from students wanting to meet about the M.A. program, the list of all the new incoming graduate students--and realized that my sabbatical is definitively over. That I'd better stop mourning it, too, because all this stuff is pretty fun if only I can get my head around the fact that I'm not writing full-time any more! It was the list of new students that was really the clincher--I remember how excited I was when I started grad school, but also how excited I was EVERY September for school to start after the long, hot, BORING months of July and August. Where you check out your twelve books from the library (having persuaded them to give you an adult rather than a children's card), stay up all night reading & then find yourself about twenty-four hours later having literally read all twelve and with nothing to read again. One of the many, many things I like about adult life is that with the combination of Columbia's library, the NYPL, the guy who sells used paperbacks on Broadway and 113th and Amazon (plus occasional bookstore incursions) I can actually usually have enough books to read... It was certainly pleasant to be able to justify reading Jonathan Strange as work because of the review part of it; one of the things I will have to give up when school starts is this compulsive large-volume reading I've been doing this year, both for work and for fun.

Saturday, August 28, 2004


Strange to think of this

Stephen Elliott's Looking Forward to It

I'm arranging a reading/discussion from this for October: Looking Forward to It promises to be very interesting... More details to follow.

AL Kennedy's Paradise

Haven't yet read this--just a note to remind myselfto get it. Strangely, though I am very fond of Scottish fiction, I haven't read any of Kennedy's books. Is there a better place for me to start than this one?

Guardian piece on Eva Ibbotson's new book

A good piece on Eva Ibbotson, author of The Star of Kazan, to be published in October in the US. It is an absolutely wonderful book--Ibbotson should be much better-known than she is in the US.

Friday, August 27, 2004

The Guardian reports on the Booker longlist

There is something amazing about the fact that this list provokes the English betting chains to produce lists of the odds on each book winning. I do think it's a more open list than the last few years; I've only read a handful of the ones on the list, and not many more of the authors' other books either. Lots of first and second novels. The two frontrunners seem to be Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, certainly the two I've been meaning to read anyway; must get hold of copies ASAP.

Philip Pullman on the science of fiction

Good little piece, though I am so obsessed with this topic that I was disappointed to see him not talk about why science is such a fascinating and essential body of knowledge for novelists. Of all the science writers he mentions, I think the one I like the most is V. S. Ramachandran, whose Phantoms in the Brain is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read. But all that stuff is great.

M.I.T. Makes Yale Provost First Woman to Be Its Chief

This is very cool news. I know Susan Hockfield a bit from the time I spent at Yale, and I think very, very highly of her. Exciting!

Medical thrillers!

Detoured from work to read two books loaned to me by my friend and colleague Michael M., Tess Gerritsen's Body Double and The Sinner. Both quite good. I do find myself wanting more interesting prose than you see here. But the identical twin plot in Body Double is sort of fascinating. I also found myself comparing these books to two books by Karin Slaughter that I also recently read (lent me by the same friend): A Faint Cold Fear and Indelible. I liked them both (much better than Kisscut, which I read at the beginning of the summer & made me feel that Slaughter was really overrated). Slaughter is more interesting to me than Gerritsen: there's a writing thing going on here that just isn't with Gerritsen, who is a very good storyteller but doesn't have a particular talent for character or place. Slaughter's more interesting, despite the inevitable Patricia Cornwell/Kathy Reichs comparisons. (I still like Cornwell much, more more than Reichs; the first-person voice in Cornwell's books is raw and painful & on the whole much more interresting than the other.) In sum: will read more books by Gerritsen and Reichs, who are similarly interesting and competent writers about female pathologists; Cornwell's gone off the deep end, but of course I'll still read hers; but Slaughter, despite my reservations (and partly it's just that I like the character of Lena so much more than Sara!), I will look out for actively and read new books ASAP.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Vidal's Villa

Slightly sad to see this article about Gore Vidal selling his Italian villa. I LOVE Vidal. He is the only living avatar of a particular kind of fiction-writing that I especially admire (Robert Graves and Anthony Burgess as precursors): historical novels, interestingly informed by strong opinions about present-day life. My favorite: Julian. But lots of other good ones too.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Identity Theory interviews Barbara Wallraff

This is a wonderful comment by Barbara Wallraff, and describes exactly my feelings about copy-editing (hmm... let me clarify... not about when my prose gets copy-edited by someone else, but when I'm the copy-editor!): the whole interview can be found at identity theory. Here's what Wallraff says: "Really almost the most fun you can have as editor--it's a perverse kind of fun--is turning something upside down and backwards and just buffing and polishing and doing all kinds of stuff to it and then getting it into type--giving the typeset version to the author in a way that he or she doesn't get to see the changes, just the final version. And have them look at it and say, "Oh you did hardly anything." And you are thinking, "Yes. Because I made you say what you meant to say. Clearly, you weren't being detail-oriented about this. Let me do that for you. And now it says what you want.""

I am a truly obsessive copy-editor; more to follow on this.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Rotters revisited

I loved Jonathan Coe's The Rotters' Club (I'd read all his previous novels, but this one is by far the best), and am now on the lookout for a copy of his sequel, The Closed Circle. RC is the funniest and saddest book you will ever read--it features a great sad moment in literature roughly commensurate with the moment in Tom Stoppard's Jumpers when the protagonist realizes that he has inadvertently killed two philosophical household pets...

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Temporarily sated

I have finished binging on Terry Pratchett, the author of the Discworld novels. My verdict: great stuff! Highly addictive! Just as well there aren't lots more of them! My criticism: there's a big gap between the best ones and the average ones. Here are my sub-thoughts (and a record for myself of which ones I still need to get hold of):

The Color of Magic (slight in comparison to good later ones)
The Light Fantastic (similar)
Equal Rites (haven't read)
Small Gods (OK, things really pick up here: this one's really funny)
Lord and Ladies (haven't read)
Men at Arms (haven't read)
Soul Music (the character of Susan Sto Helit is introduced; Death takes a leading role; "Music with Stones" aka rock n roll is invented; really very funny)
Interesting Times (my least favorite; surely the China-as-Counterweight-Continent humor is rather awful?)
Maskerade (witches, Phantom at the Opera, etc.; OK, not great)
Feet of Clay (haven't read)
Hogfather (my favorite! this one is hilarious, and Susan has become a bossy governess--I strongly identify with this character...)
Jingo (haven't reaD)
The Last Continent (initially feared this would be equivalent to Interesting Times, only for Australia instead of China; however it turned out to be hilariously funny; excellent academic satire and lots of jokes about evolution; also, Rincewind accidentally invents Marmite; read this novel if you like beer and kangaroos or if you have ever read Dawkins, Pinker, Diamond et al.)
Carpe Jugulum (vampires, witches; not bad, not as good as others)
Pyramid (my other least favorite, set in ancient Egypt; some good moments, but not as appealing as others, despite more details about the Assassins' Guild)
Thief of Time (not bad, Susan reappears)
Fifth Elephant (haven't read)
Last Hero (haven't read)
Night Watch (very fun--time travel again--cimmunity policing!)
The Truth (funny journalism satire)
Monstrous Regiment ("Don't Ask, Don't Tell")
The Wee Free Men (young adult; my VERY FAVORITE! although Tiffany is clearly a psychic double for Susan)

Anyway it was all very enjoyable tho I can see I am really a madwoman when it comes to novels. I particularly enjoyed the "it's similar but it's different" thing (sorry, inarticulate today) because it has points in common with what I've just done in my first dynamite novel. And some of the humorous lines are just unbeatable. (Good Omens isn't on this list, but it's really wonderful--almost better I think than any of these--because Pratchett and Neil Gaiman have this insane synergy where it brings out the very very best in both of them--and they are both so good already...) I think I do sort of prefer young adult fantasy and comic fantasy; Diana Wynne Jones, for instance, is just a little bit more my cup of tea than TP. However, I highly recommend these books....

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Research can be done from those things called books...

Many lit blogs have linked to this article, which reports on a recent piece that proves that Patrick O'Brian, despite his authorship of a million books about sailing, did not actually know how to sail. The point of the piece is curious. The reporter seems to think that it's deeply problematic that O'Brien lied about his name and his history, and that the sailing know-how is a clincher: "But now fresh claims have emerged that will test the loyalty of even his most vocal supporters. It appears that the man who wrote so brilliantly and so accurately about naval warfare and life aboard ship during the Napoleonic wars did not actually know how to sail."

Why do we care whether or not he knew how to sail? You can write brilliantly and, yes, accurately about something without having done it in person! That's what books are for....

BTW, if you like that sailing stuff, you should read the underrated and rather excellent novel by Erskine Childers, The Riddle of the Sands.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Maud Newton likes Pandora's Handbag

I am delighted to hear that Maud Newton likes this book by Elizabeth Young. I am on a mission to get everybody I know who cares about books to read it. Tidbit: EY was the girlfriend of Mick Jones of The Clash!

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Wake Up, Sir!

Detoured from Discworld for just long enough to read Jonathan Ames's very funny new novel, Wake Up, Sir!

I still like his short essays the best of all. The Extra Man was a great read, but it recycles material that comes in its most edgy and peculiar form in the nonfiction pieces. Something happens when Ames turns this into the material for a novel: it's still good, it's still funny, but it's a little less perverted and a little more sentimental. In this as in the other, the narrator is just a bit too much of a nice guy! And less of a truly demented pervert, which is what I really love about the essays. However, both novels are full of really hilarious stuff. And the narrative voice is well maintained and appealing. Well worth reading.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford

I must get this book, which sounds excellent. I really, really liked his book The Child That Books Built. Which is, as one of the Amazon reviews says, a book I wish I'd written myself. Backroom Boys promises to be just as interesting.

Thursday, August 12, 2004


This entry speaks for itself: Klaxon Definition.

Blazing Saddles

My dad just sent me the link for an amazing story in Philadelphia Weekly about black cowboys in Fairmount Park:

"For years black cowboys bought horses at livestock auctions in New Holland, Pa., and cared for them at stables in North and West Philadelphia. Many of the cowboys bought horses as hobbies in their retirement, taking them for weekend rides through the neighborhood and across Fairmount Park's many trails. Today a dwindling number of cowboys still buy aging racehorses--many of which would otherwise be killed--and give them a second racing life."

The pictures are great--check the whole piece out.

Trashy novels

Nice little piece at the Guardian on trashy novels, by Ellie Levenson: Seasonal trash.

I love trashy novels. I love trashy novels more than life itself. In fact, this blog should really be called "trashy novels" except that I thought it might offend the writers of novels (trashy or otherwise) that I mention here. Probably the trashier your novels are, the more offended you would be by such a heading? Personally I would take it as a high compliment. But it's also true that I use the phrase in a particular way that doesn't mean bad trashy novels, just good ones (perfect example: Dick Francis, see post below).

Long ago my friend Paul G. made me a great "Trashy novels" tape--I think it had T. Rex on one side and Teenage Fanclub's "Bandwagonesque" on the other. Or perhaps that was another tape altogether.


A FRIGHTENINGLY APROPOS piece about the financial consequences of being a professor... check it out here.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004


I'm mulling over a few preliminary thoughts for a piece I'm going to write about a forthcoming novel alluded to below. General plan: write an interesting, thoughtful and also amusing essay that maps out the current state of "historical" fantasy.

A friend of mine just e-mailed me about the Time magazine review (coincidentally written by my friend Lev Grossman, author of Codex) of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which predicts that "Fantasy may be the greatest comeback story of the past 10 years." I wholeheartedly agree.

You really know times have changed when the New York Review of Books (of all places) publishes a five-and-a-half-thousand-word piece by Michael Chabon on Philip Pullman,
Dust & Daemons. Don't get me wrong: this is the piece I most want to read, and surely many other readers are delighted not to face another long essay on politics in the Middle East!

Academic publishing

There's a good article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, "Presses Seek Fiscal Relief in Subsidies for Authors": "Under this plan, all institutions would contribute to the pool, and give authors $5,000 to $10,000 in what are called 'subventions' that they could take to an academic press interested in publishing their book. Universities and colleges that require books and journal articles for tenure and promotion but do not maintain their own presses might be asked to contribute more than those that do. "

I don't think it's likely to come about that universities will really contribute to a fund without guarantees that their own faculty will benefit. I do think it's likely that more and more colleges and universities will dedicate money to helping their younger faculty to publish books. The shortfall involves relatively small amounts of money, given the huge financial commitment involved in hiring any faculty member in the first place. There's a good article in the latest issue of The Believer that sums up what took place at an MLA panel on publishing and tenure:

"Jennifer Crewe of Columbia University Press presents some numbers, which provide perspective. Average production cost of a university-press title: $25,000. Total number of copies of each title purchased by all university libraries in bygone days: 1,000. Number of copies of each title sold to all libraries in current crisis days: 200. A book that sells very well (say, 500 copies) might recoup: $10,000­$12,000. Average loss on average university-press title: $10,000+. Cost of subscription to run-of-the-mill scientific journal: $20,000. It's like a parody of a MasterCard commercial, but all of the "priceless" punch lines are so painfully obvious there's no reason to bother finishing the joke."

I realize how insane this will sound to anyone who is not involved in academia. And this isn't the place to explain why this isn't as crazy as it sounds. (Though it would make a good scene in a Terry Prachett novel... I've read a whole bunch more since I last wrote this, including just now the appealing Monstrous Regiment. Let's just say it casts a whole new light on "don't ask, don't tell." Does the NYTBR not review these books? Or did I just not notice? They should, anyway...) But trust me when I say that there are actually many good reasons that universities should make a $10,000 commitment to make up the shortfall, assuming that obvious concerns about it affecting the decision-making processes at the press. But I don't see why this should be the case--or at any rate, it wouldn't add too much extra complexity to a process that is already very deeply embedded in privilege. Nobody would be so idealistic as to say that the very same book manuscript, if submitted by an independent scholar or a scholar at a not-very-well-known institution, is as likely to be accepted by a top press as if it's by a well-known scholar at a prestigious institution. I do think that if it's a good book, it probably will be accepted regardless; but if it's a medium-good-sort-of-middling book, the names start to really matter. And if it's not a good book at all, well then....

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Evolutionary psychology

A good link on evolutionary psychology.

A good lie-in

Guardian Books has a good long extract from Tom Hodgkinson's extremely appealing How To Be Idle. In short, laziness is a good thing.

Another good discussion of why it's not immoral to sleep late can be found in Jonathan Weiner's excellent book about the geneticist Seymour Benzer, Time, Love Memory: A Great Biologist and his Quest for the Origins of Behavior.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

Stephen Elliott's Happy Baby

I'd been meaning to get hold of this for a while, but the recent rave by Stephany reminded me. I hit the library and found it in a strange little nook at the very back of the tenth floor of Butler Library: PR is the Library of Congress code for British literature, PS for American, and they are subdivided within these categories by something to do with the date of the author. So this is the wing where it's fiction by relatively young people (I expect if I looked online, I could figure the cutoff--I'd guess 1965, or maybe 1970). My novel was there, pretty exciting to see it in a good old library binding. And I got Monique Truong's The Book of Salt, which I've also been wanting to read. And Stephen Elliott's Happy Baby.

And it was about midnight last night and I'd finally finished revising my chapter on shibboleths and elocutionists and I picked up another volume by Terry Pratchett but I've temporarily stalled on that (Hogfather: excellent; Maskerade: minor but entertaining; Thief of Time: I like that Susan character but book didn't live up to Hogfather standard; Interesting Times, too goofy to be really enjoyable). So I pushed the huge pile of books on the couch aside and sat down with Happy Baby.

And it is amazingly good. I see in it a lot of things I tried to do in Heredity, only really done better here. This book is sexier and also more beautifully and elegantly written. It's really, really excellent. Read it. I was relieved to see Elliott quoted somewhere as saying that it took him two years to write and that he was working on it every day all day and refining the prose. Because he's got that amazingly lucid style where you fear that it might just come out of him all perfect like that. In which case he would deserve to die... I completely identify with the main female character, I am sorry to say. I like the backwards time structure. Most of all though I like the sentences and the way they add up into these very intense scenes.

I wish I had written this book.

Friday, August 06, 2004


I just saw this interesting comment by the writer Paula Fox. (A fullish excerpt from the interview can be found here; link via Here's what Fox says: "At some point I began to value 'truth,' that elusive thing, more as I grew older--not only story. I recall lying on a bed, looking at a manuscript on the floor as I reached to turn pages, and thinking to myself, I must mean everything I say, every word, and feeling it as a profound moment in my writing life."

I particularly feel this in my academic writing, though of course it's an issue in fiction as well. I don't mean just being accurate in claims about the past, though that's important too. (When I say that Noah Webster ran hot-and-cold on spelling reform, for instance--this is what I'm working on today--is that really fair, and do I really know enough to say it? The answer is yes....) I mean being, oh, I don't know how to put it, well, TRUTHFUL in a sense closer to "authentic" than to "accurate." And while I was in graduate school, I found my own personal metaphor for this. It sounds crazy, but I really did internalize the voice of one of my dissertation advisors, a genius I will refer to here just as DB. DB has a strong ethical commitment to the study of literature and he is especially interested in a group of writers defined by their interest in ethics: say, Edmund Burke, Wordsworth, Frost, Wallace Stevens, that kind of thing. And when I wrote anything, I would think to myself as I struggled to get the right phrasing, "Is this something I could say to DB without blushing? Or do I cringe a little at the thought of him reading it and detecting some kind of intellectual dishonesty--some urge to be fashionable or politically correct or just glib about something that deserves deeper probing?" And if I cringed, I worked the sentence over until it was something that wouldn't provoke the (always kind, but nonetheless to be avoided at all costs!) skepticism of DB, who had become something like the "man in the breast" (comical phrasing, but interesting idea) you find in Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments. I found this liberating rather than oppressive. Because it's worth working hard to get things right. In fiction, I'd phrase it more as a question of voice--I find it harder there, because I end up paring things down to the bone in a struggle to eliminate coyness, bad faith, etc.--all the things that happen when you try and find the right place to speak from. My first novel was in the end written in two different first-person voices, because I couldn't find a third-person voice I could live with. The novel I've just written is written in the third person, but it's very close to the main character's own voice.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004


Well, I've fended it off as long as possible--too much hype, I'm not into the very jokey kind of fantasy--but finally the time came: I've just finished The Color of Magic, Terry Pratchett's first Discworld novel. (The teaser earlier in the summer was reading the lovely Good Omens, coauthored by Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.) Now I'm hooked and I've taken drastic measures. I remember being like this when I finally read Patrick O'Brien's Master and Commander. It's not so much that you say "this is the best book ever" and go and get the whole series. (Which I did, from the library at Yale--CCL--and read the whole damn thing in about four days. I'm not exaggerating. I'm addicted to novels.) It's more that you say "well, that was pretty fun, and since I need a huge supply of novels in order to get my fix, I'm getting all the rest of these, as soon as possible and preferably at no expense to myself." So as the Columbia library doesn't have more than 3--which I will go and get tomorrow--I have requested thirteen more (and I think at least one of those volumes is a three-in-one deal) from my favorite thing in the world, BorrowDirect, a service that gives certain university library borrowers access to the holdings of all the other libraries in the consortium (which includes Yale, Columbia, Penn, Princeton, Dartmouth, Cornell, etc.). You could say it affects sales in a negative way, this obsessive library use. But there are many reasons it's necessary and indeed a good thing. I will recommend these books to lots of people, and maybe even buy copies to give away. And also I would drown in a sea of books if I really bought all the books I read. Easily get through ten to fifteen novels a week. More, some weeks. Can't wait to motor through these Discworld books, anyway.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Profile of Eva Ibbotson

Check out this Independent profile of Eva Ibbotson, Enjoyment. She is one of my favorite writers, and I've especially enjoyed seeing how her last few children's books are really converging on what she does in her novels for adults. (Link via Michael Thorn's blog.

Guardian Top 10: Michael Dobson and Nicola J Watson's favorite books about Elizabeth I

An appealing-looking list that ends with one of my favorite books from childhood, Ally Sheedy's She Was Nice to Mice: Top 10s | Michael Dobson and Nicola J Watson: Elizabeth I. These two are excellent scholars--I have read Dobson's book about Shakespeare in the 18th century and Watson's about the novel of letters in the romantic period, both several times a piece. Which for academic books is saying a great deal! Often I just race through the introduction and a chapter or two, scan footnotes and comb through the bibliography for anything that sounds interesting.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Susanna Clarke

I was gripped by this NYT Magazine piece about Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I heard about this some time ago--on Neil Gaiman's website, perhaps?--and immediately preordered from Amazon. I am dying to read this--and in fact am about to go back and print out the PDF file of the first chapter from the NYT website. This is the novel I most want to read; it is also (though obviously I say this without having read it) rather the same kind of book that I've just written. So I was amused to see this comment by Clarke's husband (also a SF and fantasy novelist):

Greenland told me [writes the author of the piece], ''Somebody actually said on a Web site, 'I hope this novel lives up to all the hype, because if not, it's going to be a big setback for all fantastic historical crossover writers.'''
He raised his eyebrows, waiting for me to complete the joke. ''Both of them?''

--Update from a fantastic historical crossover writer....