Monday, December 26, 2005

Of Tesla coils and transit strikes

I'm back from some days in New York and Philadelphia about which my overriding impression is that while things were really very pleasant it makes me crazy (and also very tired out) when I don't have enough time to read. (Transit strike meant much walking and shuttle-busing in a way that made me realize how sanity-inducing the reading you might get done on the downtown-uptown-downtown subway thing. The walking-and-thinking thing is good too of course but it doesn't at all give you the reading fix.) I am fond of people in other words, I very much like being around them but if I don't have 6-8 hours a day of wakeful solitude and reading and writing time I begin to feel completely insane and for some reason on this trip I just barely read anything at all. I've got a lot of work reading coming up but I think I must have a further day or two of indulgence (reading-whatever-I-want indulgence) before really tucking in to the serious stuff. And a lot of blogging too, that's the other thing I missed.

Of course I did read a few novels, it wasn't complete cold turkey. The most amazing one--and you know, I don't really like western-themed fiction at all, I do like books with horses (Dick Francis, Peter Temple) but I was surprised by how much I fell completely in love with this book--is the brilliant sort-of-cowboy/sort-of-noir novel Wounded
by Percival Everett. It's bleak and stripped-down and beautifully written and you must read it if you want to see what a really excellent writer can do in this mode. Plus it has the most heartbreaking ending ever, actually only matched by the ending to Ken Bruen's must-read The Dramatist (which made me cry--and I am a tough and hardboiled kind of reader even if more tenderhearted in life as a whole).

(Digression #1: It is a well-known fact that even if you generally/always believe that noir best captures the existential texture of life in the world you will ESPECIALLY believe this around the holidays, I can't explain it--really I'm quite happy and had a nice time in my travels--but there is somehow nothing like a really bleak and depressing noir novel in the Xmas season....)

(Digression #2: A book like this just makes me annoyed at the pointless divide between literary and crime fiction, this book captures the best of both kinds and if you're a reader of Sarah Weinman's site or just an avid fan of crime fiction in general you should get this and you should also get it if you are more hip to the literary stuff but don't follow the independent-press scene and somehow missed this one. A few more links: Robert Birnbaum interviews Everett; the Village Voice review of Wounded by my friend Jane Yeh.)

En route to NY and Philadelphia I read Jack of Kinrowan (actually two novels collected into one volume, Jack, the Giant Killer and Drink Down the Moon) by Charles de Lint, a likeable contribution to the whole mythic fiction thing that I think I would have enjoyed more if I hadn't just read the incredible, incredible novel (and unfortunately in an extremely similar vein but far more exactly to my taste) that is Emma Bull's War for the Oaks (here's my rave). Bull has better voice and characterization (the two things I most particularly care about), some of de Lint's sentences come off rather flat and on the whole these novels are less interested in character than in mythic world-building; but they really are very good and I amlooking forward to getting and reading more of his, somehow I missed them all the first time round.

On the train coming back to Cambridge this afternoon I read the latest installment in the Merrily-Watkins-Diocesan-Exorcist series by Phil Rickman, The Smile of a Ghost. I like these books a lot--paranormal detective fiction!--and this one was definitely up to the usual standard (though really Rickman isn't a patch on Susan Howatch, whose books I love--and I will also admit that if you just read Rickman and Howatch you would have the [surely mistaken? really I have no idea] impression that priests ordained in the Church of England uniformly log in most of their work hours on [a] exorcisms and [b] murder investigations and [c] complicated scruples about very mildly unorthodox sexual relationships).

In the first part of the train ride I was finishing a really excellent novel (probably my other favorite out of this bunch, along with the Everett), The Prestige by Christopher Priest. My only complaint is that it did remind me a bit too much of Robertson Davies, but it really was great (excellent prose style, good handling of multiple narratives, good Victorian-magic-early-electricity-type stuff--this is where the Tesla coils come in...) and it also had one of my favorite things that you can get in on-the-whole-pretty-much-realist-in-style novels, radical experimentation with the pronoun "I" and the self and identity. I found myself wishing someone would write a really interesting essay about the broad category of novels that experiment with selfness and the first-person voice not just because they are narratives of doubled selves (Jekyll and Hyde, Anansi Boys) but because they are really radically playing around with singleness and multipleness and identity and sometimes gender as well. My top other picks on this (I'm too lazy to paste in links): Matt Ruff's Set This House in Order, which everyone should read; and Iain Banks's classic The Wasp Factory.

This book also led to what was almost certainly my most bizarre book-related experience of the last week. There was a quite nice-looking but slightly overfriendly woman sitting in the opposite set of seats and she kept on leaning across the aisle and peering at the cover of what I was reading and asking me if it was a good book. I like talking about books but of course I was completely immersed in this one & wanted to finish it rather than interrupt my reading trance for pointless conversation. I finished it a little while later & took out the Rickman one to read next and at that point the woman asked if she could buy the first one from me! It was quite odd, she paid me the full cover price and proceeded to settle in to it with great enjoyment. I'm not sure if this was just because she really, really wanted something to read and hadn't remembered to bring anything with her or whether it was more because I was so entranced in the volume that she thought she should get some for herself. I hope she enjoys it.

(Several of these novels, BTW, are the fruits of a recent spending spree at the excellent Porter Square Books. Don't let the shopping-mall location put you off: this is an excellent, excellent independent bookstore and I dropped WAY more money there last week than I meant to. The Harvard Bookstore still holds its place in my heart as favorite Cambridge independent bookstore but this one really has something complementary to offer, in particular a really excellent selection of science fiction and fantasy and young adult fiction which is not so much the particular thing of the Harvard Bookstore. If you live in the area and haven't been there, do check it out.)


  1. There is something so endearing about you complaining about not having had ANY TIME AT ALL TO READ while recounting the six novels you read on the way to and fro your holiday destinations. :) Adorable! It's a terrible cliche but yes, your effusiveness is infectious. I am just starting a three-week-long masters class on PTSD so I am seriously dreading the complete lack of (personal) reading time I'm going to have. But, as usual, your post led to three new additions to my Amazon wish list. So in addition to making my jealous, you are bankrupting me and hindering my attempts to save for an engagement ring for my sweetheart. Hope you are happy with yourself!

  2. You know, it's funny, I am not QUITE so insane as to think six novels in a week isn't enough, it is just that all the reading was condensed on 2 days out of the seven!

    Good luck with your master's course, and I hope you enjoy the books....