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


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


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


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...