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?


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.