Sunday, January 30, 2005

An absolutely scathing review of HEREDITY at bookmunch!

Oooh, now this completely counteracts my happiness at that good review last week... check it out here. It's funny, the 18th-century parts of Heredity are most polarizing. This reader really, really hated them. And other things too. Ah well...

I am so happy with the results of the latest round of revisions on Dynamite No. 1, though, that it's hard to feel this matters much. (My second novel is technically so superior to my first that I'm not surprised reviewers have substantial criticisms of that one. Though I stand by Heredity, don't get me wrong. I think it's a good read, with some excellent qualities, but very much a first novel.) The weird thing is the time lag--I really feel at this point that it was a different person who wrote that book. It was published in the US almost 2 years ago, and I'd finished the final manuscript a year before that, and I'd really written most of it, say, between 1997 and 2000, plus a couple overhauls in 2001 and 2002. Ancient history. Anyway, bookmunch, some people liked it, even if you didn't!

Sarah Weinman's recent post about getting a bad review is most apropos...

Private lives, public stories

A really interesting and thoughtful essay in the Guardian by Karen Christensen, who helped Valerie Eliot prepare her dead husband's letters for publication, and writes now about the tension between the need for privacy and the obligation to readers ("I saw a small boxed advertisement in the Times. 'Experienced part-time secretary required for literary estate in Kensington. Word processing experience an advantage.' I was surprised to receive a telephone call, only a day or two after I'd put my CV into the post, asking me to come to meet Mrs TS Eliot").

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Instant gratification

I had a most tiring work-week (lots of school stuff, immense frustration at not yet being finished with my novel revisions), and as I often do wandered into the bookstore at the end of the day trying to find something that would while away the evening given that I was completely exhausted and frazzled and irritable. I picked up The James Deans by Reed Farrel Coleman.

It is so good! I couldn't believe it--I think I saw a recommendation on Sarah Weinman's site, but it's hard to tell if tastes always agree. Anyway, this guy is the real thing. I was absolutely delighted with this book. Super-well-written first-person voice, excellent Brooklyn and tri-state area details, appealingly set in early 1980s which I think is an excellent move. Good story with nice twists at various points. I can't wait to read his others--my only regret is that it's now 11:30, much too late for me to procure any more for this evening...

How it all happened

Go here for my mini-essay about how I came to write Heredity. I am so excited that Serpent's Tail is publishing the UK edition! I feel myself to be in ridiculously exalted company...

I would never dare

to write such an outright rant, but am full of admiration for those who do, and this one is so funny that I can't stop thinking about it (and feeling sorry for the hapless skewered author of the book under review): Jonathan Yardley's Washington Post review of a how-to writing book by Bret Lott.

Any claims Lott makes of being a serious, 'literary' writer are thoroughly exploded by his penultimate chapter, 'The Most Fragile Book,' in which he tells how his writing teacher at the community college, 'a wild-haired, Harley-riding poet/professor from Cal State,' told his students to read 'a book I'd never heard of,' The Catcher in the Rye. Talk about epiphanies! The blinding light that greeted Saint Paul on the road to Damascus was a dim bulb compared to the firestorm that J.D. Salinger's stupendously overrated little novel ignited in the fluttering heart of young Bret Lott. It was 'this amazing book, this totally true book, this genuinely real book,' the book 'was about me, the me that'd been drifting what felt so many years,' and he reread it 'four or five more times during the next several years, holding it dearer each time, admiring it more the deeper I went into my own life as a writer.'

It's hardly a surprise, therefore, that Lott went on to become a writer of novels and stories in which easy sentimentality dominates and ineffectual men often play significant roles. It is an essentially adolescent, even childish view of the world, one nurtured by Holden Caulfield in 'the most fragile book I have ever read. Fragile, because in the initial rush of its ferocious beauty, the young who read it -- myself included -- can see Holden as their spokesman against the machine, yet in the same instant Holden is himself utterly breakable, because beneath that fearless veneer bent on exposing the world in all its pretension, is a fearful child.'

To which can only be said: Oh, grow up. The Catcher in the Rye may have its uses for the adolescent reader -- indeed, it seems to have become an obligatory part of the American rite of passage passage -- but there's precious little in it for the mature adult. That Lott hasn't gotten beyond it suggests nothing so much as arrested adolescence and makes all the more dubious his claim to have sound counsel for aspiring writers. But then it's hard to take seriously the counsel of a writer who can't write. To wit: "And then I glanced to my left to see a student with her nose wrinkled up, as though smelling something false. She wasn't one of those kinds of belligerent students, either, those sorts who think they know something going in and so rebut everything that comes out of your mouth in order to hold together the sad and tattered last shred of the nomad's tent their understanding of writing has become." Not bad enough for you? Try this: "The image that came to me that wanted to begin itself once I'd finished [writing] The Man Who Owned Vermont, the picture in my head that seemed to want the next novel -- and this is how the beginning comes, as some image unbidden, something I see happening that intrigues me enough to make me want to follow it out to whatever end it seems to find of and for itself -- was of a woman standing inside an empty house, her hand at a window, outside the window, thick woods.

Anyone who proposes to study writing under the author of those words may also want to study business ethics under Kenneth Lay, Jeffrey Skilling and Andrew Fastow.

(Thanks to Tingle Alley for the original link.)

Wednesday, January 26, 2005


I love sushi, definite favorite food (if I was a richer woman, I would eat sushi every day), and was enchanted by this wonderful TLS piece by Murray Sayle about a book called Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World by Theodore C. Bestor. I do have a TLS subscription, but haven't got around to sorting out the on-line password and stuff, so it was good to see that Powell's has posted it as their review of the day. Here's the meat of the matter, so to speak:

Like bacon, brawn and biltong, sushi began as a means of delaying the putrefaction of all perishable foodstuffs. Japan is washed by some of the world's richest fishing waters, and rice is the only abundant cereal. Perhaps a millennium ago (or the idea may have come from South China) someone discovered that a raw fish buried in cooked rice set up a fermentation which preserved the fish, although it turned the rice into vinegary slush. This unappetizing (even to most modern Japanese) mess is available as a souvenir in various parts of Japan, which is now, like Victorian Britain, seeing a revival of traditions, often spurious, as talismans against rapid changes no one can see the end of. The infrastructure, however, only came into being in 1603 when Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa set up his new capital in swampy ground behind the village of Edo, at the head of Tokyo Bay, itself in those pre-pollution days a very fishy body of water. Shogun Tokugawa laid out as his future residence the biggest castle in the world, named Edo after the original fishing village, defended by a system of moats and canals leading from the bay and the seas beyond. His grandson Iemitsu Tokugawa improved security by compelling regional dignitaries to reside in his new capital, under the eyes of the shoguns' police. Partial, like all Japanese, to a nice piece of fish, he had inadvertently created a system which put his successors and their conscript courtiers within a short barge delivery run from a deep-water fishing fleet ready to satisfy their every yen -- at a price.

With an eye to maximizing taxes, the shoguns ordered all fish to be sold through the central market they set up at Nihonbashi, 'Japan Bridge', where their new road network crossed the main canal leading to Edo Castle. Nihonbashi Market was soon surrounded by restaurants (the first in Japan not devoted to the needs of travellers) and it was in one of these that sushi, as we know it, was perfected in the late 1820s. The name of the culinary Columbus, Yohei Hanaya, deserves to be remembered, and it is, in the many Tokyo sushi shops that work Yohei into their signs to suggest spiritual descent from the master. Hanaya called his invention "squeezed sushi": the familiar pat of vinegared rice spiked with horseradish (originally intended to mask fish going off, retained as a sharp seasoning) topped with a slice of raw tuna, some other fish, or shellfish in colourful variety. As most of his customers were either samurai or merchants aping samurai ways, Hanaya's shop adopted military manners, bright lights, brisk service and shouted orders, and laid down the rule also observed to this day (and supported by no medical evidence whatever): women's hands are supposedly warmer than men's, and might taint the pristine freshness of raw fish if allowed to perform the critical squeezing or shaping, although sushi waitresses and female cashiers are decorative and do not pollute ready money.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

'The first dynamite bomb thrown in America' May 4th 1886

A friend gave me a most amazing present in honor of my new novel project, a framed nineteenth-century broadsheet titled 'The first dynamite bomb thrown in America' May 4th 1886. The personnel of the great anarchist trial at Chicago. Check it out...

This part of the exchange

between Robert Birnbaum and Russell Banks at identity theory especially caught my attention.

Birnbaum: Why do people want to be writers today?

Banks: There are people who want to be writers because they think writers are celebrated people in society. And they want the percs that go with all that. And there are people who want to be writers because they love to write. And they care. A much smaller number [laughs] than the other. But they are the ones that really do become writers. Because they love the process and they'll participate in that process, without rewards for a decade or more before they begin to publish because they love the process. Through writing, through that process, they realize that they become more intelligent, and more honest and more imaginative than they can be in any other part of their life.

Birnbaum: Are we talking about the notion of living an authentic life? That seems to be what is offered when you take up writing. Our natural language is something we all--

Banks: --have access to. That's what I mean about they love writing, love the process because it makes one smarter. It does. If you dedicate your attention to discipline in your life you become smarter while you are writing than while you are hanging out with your pals or in any other line of work. And you do become more honest because you are forced to; and it takes you places that you can't go otherwise. So it's like any other kind of rigorous discipline sequence with a tradition behind it--whether it's Zen Buddhism or psychotherapy or whatever. You do it long enough, it orders your life and does give you a kind of authenticity that you can't obtain otherwise. Especially in this society where there is less and less opportunity for that. It's so commodified a world we live in that you end up a huckster, no matter what you do.

Birnbaum: It's not even a matter of discussion except in some rare instances, maybe as an undergraduate somebody may stumble across a small pocket of people thinking about how you live an authentic life. It's not a common topic as far as I can tell, is it?

Banks: No, it’s not.

This is something I often think about, but was especially thinking about recently while reading Leslie Farber. It's a bit high-minded for me in its phrasing (there are some things you can say when you're an eminent sixty-some-year-old man that you just can't say if you're me, and that's just the way it is), but I couldn't agree more. Writing a book is an awful lot of trouble, really. Surely the main reason to do it is because you learn things when you write a book that you can't learn any other way? I feel that too many academics forget this--you read certain books and you think that their authors really didn't open themselves up to anything in particular (and lots of writers, academic and otherwise, write the same book again and again in different guises). I don't know--I love novels, novels of all kinds, including novels where nobody learns anything in particular, whether you're talking about the writer or the reader--but I don't know that I'd actually be interested in writing them instead of just reading them in large quantities if it wasn't that you can learn something distinctively different writing a novel than writing, say, a critical essay or an academic monograph. The modes are powerfully complementary, and I don't see why more people don't use both as a way of advancing the greater cause of what Banks is talking about here.

Well, that's my serious thought for the day... A "rigorous discipline sequence with a tradition behind it"... that's just excellent... Must get the novel, BTW. I have a major obsession with chimpanzees and the women who work with primates and minor obsessions with Liberia and ex-radicals from the 60s (witness Susan Choi's excellent American Woman). Seriously, when I was eight years old I had a complete fixation on In the Shadow of Man and thought I was going to grow up and become a second Jane Goodall. And though I totally get all the critiques, I still say that's an extraordinary book and an amazing person...

McCarthyism at Harvard

A fascinating letter by Robert N. Bellah about his experiences at Harvard in the 1950s. Chilling stuff.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

A most wonderful article

by Michael Chabon on Inventing Sherlock Holmes. Here's a very brief excerpt, but the whole thing is well worth reading:

Secret sharers, deception and disguise, imposture, buried shame and repressed evil, madwomen in the attic, the covert life of London, the concealment of depravity and wonder beneath the dull brick facade of the world--these are familiar motifs of Victorian popular literature. In 1889, J. M. Stoddart, American editor of Lippincott's Magazine, took Oscar Wilde and another writer to lunch, over which he proposed that each man write a long story for his publication. One of his lunch guests that memorable day went off and dreamed up a tale of an uncanny, bohemian, manic-depressive genius who stalks the yellow fog of London, takes cocaine and morphine to ease the torment of living in this 'dreary, dismal, unprofitable world,' and abates his drug habit by compulsively scheming to peel back the commonplace surface of other people's lives, betraying secret histories of violence and vice. Stoddart published Conan Doyle's second Holmes novel as The Sign of Four. Wilde, for his part, turned in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The Victorian habit of seeing double, of reading hidden shame and secret feelings into ordinary human lives, reached its peak with the detective stories of Sigmund Freud, and persists down to our time. It is tempting to read Conan Doyle's biography as a classic Victorian narrative of this kind, of success haunted by shameful failure, marital fidelity that conceals adulterous love, robust scientific positivism that masks deep credulity.

I love, love, love Sherlock Holmes. Really, I can't describe the debt I owe to that collected tales volume I had in my childhood. The novel I've just written, Dynamite No. 1, is set in an alternate-universe version of the 1930s (Napoleon beat Wellington at Waterloo; Joyce writes operas, Wagner novels), but the thing I couldn't find myself doing without was these tales. Conan Doyle figures largely--he wrote those Sherlock Holmes tales in this universe despite its other divergences, and Stevenson wrote Jekyll and Hyde too, because despite the appeal of alternate history, I can't imagine the modern world (modern story-telling) without them. (In my world, Adorno and Heisenberg have changed places, so that Adorno--Teddy Wiesengrundt--came up with the uncertainty principle, and Heisenberg thought that Enlightenment wasn't all i was cracked up to be. Also in this version of Edinburgh, the modern police station is located in Conan Doyle Row, a street renamed for the author of Sherlock Holmes just west of the city center. And Freud's a pirate radio guru broadcasting out of Hamburg about the "Daedalus Complex," the idea that men invent things that their sons use to destroy themselves with.)

Anyway, I'm a huge fan of Chabon's--Summerland got me hooked, it is truly one of my favorite books of the past 10 years, I couldn't believe how good it was, and then I discovered the most wonderful Kavalier and Clay, which everyone must read and love... The thing to do is read these two novels. But his site is here, and I also alert you to the excellent blog of his wife Ayelet, an interesting author in her own right; the blog's called Bad Mother, and is completely addictive whether or not you're a mother, bad or otherwise.

Brief self-promotion: I wrote the introduction to the very reasonably priced B&N Classics edition of Jekyll & Hyde. Seriously, this one's a real bargain...


Now back to my original purpose, after discovering the contents of the previous entry with delight... I read Art Spiegelman's In the Shadow of No Towers. I'm too much of a words person to really like books with lots of pictures, but it definitely took me back. I still have this weird thing where September 11 brings to mind the smell of this Chanel foaming face-cleanser that I'd bought about a month earlier at the tail end of a massive gift certificate (a present from the editorial collective at the Yale Journal of Criticism, where I was managing editor) at Century 21, which was then out of action for many months to come. The indescribable smell of this pale-blue foaming stuff in an expensive-looking black-and-white tube--I'm too far uptown to have that other smell in the air, the smell we really all associate with September 11, of burning plastic and human flesh--is the way I remember those days following September 11, that and having to pull myself together to lecture on Wycherly and Congreve and explain to my Literature Humanities first-year students at Columbia why the NYT was featuring photographs of people in the Middle East cheering at the deaths in lower Manhattan... Anyway, an interesting read. And I also just finished Brooklyn Noir (on which my brother Jon Doe had some interesting recent comments, only I won't infringe his privacy, except to say that he thinks Ken Bruen is the best--he bought this volume at a Brooklyn Barnes and Noble after having read The Guards and loved it). Maggie Estep rocks!

A most lovely and unexpected review!

Went online to do a little research on the Dublin Noir anthology that Ken Bruen's asked me to contributed to--I've got a good idea for my story but I rarely read and never write short fiction, so let's just say I'm intimidated--and happened instead upon this lovely review of the Serpent's Tail edition of my novel. I'm excerpting because I'm a sucker for this kind of flattery. A good review is the most excellent thing in the world! Thank you...

Elizabeth Mann is a character who takes no prisoners. In a whirlwind fourteen or so paragraphs she goes from sitting in New York contemplating killing herself or her father--the main bone of contention in her life--to taking up a shitty job offer working for a budget travel guide in London. Finds a grotty bedsit, settles in, cheats a little on the job, and while covering museums is drawn in by the medical curiosities at the Hunterian Museum. Here the pace lets up a bit, and it is here, in more leisurely fashion, that she meets the skeleton of Jonathan Wild, a notorious eighteenth-century criminal, and Gideon Streetcar, a married infertility specialist who studied under her father. Both will greatly affect her life.

Although she doesn't particularly like the obnoxious Gideon, she embarks on an affair, and it is while she is attending an auction with him that she ends up with a manuscript written by Mary, the second wife of Jonathan Wild, who writes about the first wife, also called Elizabeth Mann, dying in childbirth. Becoming obsessed with Wild, Elizabeth decides to give birth to Wild's clone. The childless Gideon is easily roped in, but he has his own agenda. This could end in tears, for someone.

Divided between Elizabeth's odd quest and her methods of getting things done--usually by bedding a poor hapless person into doing her bidding or at least stringing them along--and the manuscript, which tells of the everyday life and comings and goings back in the Wild household and his 'Office for the Recovery of Lost and Stolen Property', the book takes on many guises. Mary's tale, full of historical interest, would be a romance if the syphilitic Wild were anything near cute, and Elizabeth's tale would be a modern-day 'food and fucking' novel if it weren't for her preference for McDonald’s and the Jurassic Park overtones of meddling with Wild’s DNA or the sex taking on a whole new perspective when she opens her legs… to receive artificial insemination. The whole evolves into one very good, well-paced novel, with Elizabeth’s brutal machine-gun delivery tempered by Mary’s more refined, gentler approach, giving a balanced tone and texture where one wouldn’t really expect it.

What gives Heredity that little something else though, is the awful Elizabeth. Moody, selfish cows who hate almost everything (see the lovely lunch scene with Gideon) except an English jam doughnut and a good bonk just about anywhere are not the typical American heroines of today. Long may her type rattle the conventions. Jenny Davidson has come up with a winning protaganist and a worthy debut novel. MGS

Friday, January 21, 2005

Why haven't I ever been to Hong Kong?

Just finished S. J. Rozan's Reflecting the Sky, a good recent installment in her excellent series (though I agree with the general Amazon consensus that the ones narrated by Bill Smith are preferable to the Lydia Chin ones). I must get her 9/11 novel and read it; she's a great writer.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

The London Library

An excellent piece about the London Library by Tom Stoppard (link via The Literary Saloon). Very enviable. I agree about the usefulness of taking books home, though I love the British Library as well. And all other libraries: most particularly, the Columbia Library and the whole BorrowDirect phenomenon, which lets me request books to arrive within the next few days from a consortium that includes Yale, Penn, Dartmouth, Princeton and a number of others.

My grandfather bought a lifetime membership in the London Library (I'm sort of making up the details here, I didn't write it down at the time) in the early 50s for fifty pounds (a lot of money then, but a remarkable bargain in the long haul). And my grandparents were rather economical folks; when he sort of stopped using it in the mid-1990s as he hit his 80s my grandmother was vexed thinking about whether it could be converted into a lifetime membership for me. Which was very sweet but impractical.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

In the cracks

I finally got back in the work groove last week and have been working like crazy--I need to finish the novel rewrite before the semester's really and truly underway. It's getting there (a couple new scenes still to write, plus some tweaking of plot points affected by the changes, but I've done RUTHLESS cutting and copy-editing and it's starting to look finished in a way it didn't last time round--very exciting). But it's been pretty all-consuming so I haven't read much. A few things I ran my eyes over in idle moments:

T. Jefferson Parker's Silent Joe. I've been hearing a lot about this guy, never read any of his books. I liked this one very much, will certainly read more. The plot seems pretty thin, and occasional details make you wish that novels were subject to fact-checking and plausibility fixups in the way that you have a continuity person on a film set. But the prose style's excellent and the character's very appealing, if not quite as attractive as the (similar in certain ways) Jack Reacher of Lee Child's books.

The Private Wound, by Nicholas Blake. I hadn't realized he'd written detective novels other than the Nigel Strangeways ones. Not bad, but not much to it. Interesting Anglo-Irish stuff. There's something I really like about Blake's novels, though (and there's always the additional fillip that Blake was the pseudonym of Cecil Day Lewis, father of Daniel). I must go and get them all and read them again. I think it's possible that he deserves more lasting fame for the detective novels than for the poetry, though surely he would have been chagrined to hear this.

Donna Leon's Friends In High Places. Not at all bad--certainly a pleasant way of passing an hour or two--but slight. Rather Dibdinesque, too, but without the bleaker view associated with Aurelio Zen. Reading this reminded me why I'm not crazy about the traditional series detective novel--if you come in late on in the series, there's often a cursory feeling about a lot of the character/home and work setting stuff, so then it depends more on how you feel about the sensibility. This is the kind of book I won't buy in an airport because I'll finish it too quickly, but that I'll read if I don't have to pay for it.

The biggest disappointment was Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand. I'd heard such good things about this (including a discussion of underrated books of 2004 at Tingle Alley) but I could barely finish it. On the plus side: the writing's really stylish, the author's done her homework and written plausible late-nineteenth-century scenes that aren't chock-full of jarring details. On the negative side: it's really flimsy! I'm not into the doomed love/artistic madness thing, and I felt that whatever was compelling about this material to the author had been insufficiently translated to the reader. The interweaving of story-lines also detracts from the novel's effectiveness: all the young men seemed pretty much interchangeable and not really very interesting. I'm curious to read something else Hand's written, though--my final impression was that this was a weak book by a pretty talented author.

It's all Steven Pinker's fault

A student from my graduate seminar this fall (where we read Steven Pinker in an attempt to work out how scholars in the humanities can take on the highly ideological and often scientifically suspect claims about gender made by this bestselling popularizer of evolutionary psychology) has tipped me off to this article in the Harvard Crimson about the recent comments about women in science by Harvard's president:

Two sociologists whose research University President Lawrence H. Summers cited at an economics conference Friday said yesterday their findings do not support Summers' suggestion that 'innate differences' may account for the under-representation of women in the sciences.

University of California-Davis sociologist Kimberlee A. Shauman said that Summers' remarks were 'uninformed.' The other researcher, University of Michigan sociologist Yu Xie, said he accepted Summers' comments as 'scholarly propositions,' although he said his own analysis 'goes against Larry's suggestion that math ability is something innate.'

Xie and Shauman presented their findings at the National Bureau of Economic Research Friday afternoon, shortly after Summers' remarks.

In an interview with The Crimson last night, Summers stressed that he only cited Xie and Shauman's research as evidence that females are underrepresnted among the top 5 percent of test-takers on standardized assessments. Summers said the evidence for his speculative hypothesis that biological differences may partially account for this gender gap comes instead from scholars cited in Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker's bestselling 2002 book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Smoking genes

The headline about "A Smoking Gene?" was what caught my eye, but the article is yet another example of the very peculiar way that questions about will come into talk about genetics and predispositions (this is why I was reading Leslie Farber on the will, trying to work some of this stuff out):

"Two geneticists, Dr. Kathleen Merikangas of the National Institute of Mental Health and Dr. Neil Risch of Stanford University, have taken on this challenge by introducing an intriguing framework for setting priorities for genetic research.
"The best candidates for genetic research, they believe, are disorders whose emergence and course cannot be derailed by changes in personal habits or manipulation of the environment. Examples are autism, Type 1 diabetes and Alzheimer's disease.
"In contrast, lower priority on the genetic research hierarchy should go to conditions like Type 2 diabetes or alcohol or nicotine addiction, they argue. Type 2 diabetes, after all, can be largely avoided through exercise and weight loss, and teenagers will buy less beer if taxes on alcohol are high enough. Similarly, a combination of smoking bans, social pressure and taxes have had an impact on smoking."

No comment for now, this is just another one for the collection...

The NYT reports on MEALAC at Columbia

My colleague and fellow ECFAS member Andy Nathan has the best quotation in today's NYT piece about mideast controversies at Columbia: "'I've been teaching 33 years and I've always thought we all knew what was appropriate faculty deportment,' said Andrew J. Nathan, a political science professor who is dubious about the students' charges. 'Now it is not clear to everyone that the classroom is where the faculty is in full control. I teach a course called Introduction to Human Rights. We had a whole week on the torture memos of the Bush administration. Now I'm starting to wonder whether there's somebody in my class of 143 students who might grieve against me, that I indoctrinated them, that they went through emotional suffering to hear about these things.' "

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Catching up

on Stephen Elliott's backlist, A Life Without Consequences and What It Means to Love You. I liked both of these a lot, but there's also an unusually clear sequence between them and the remarkable payoff that is Happy Baby.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The first (short) review

Here's the first review--all right, it's ridiculously short, but it's still a review--of Hypocrisy and the Politics of Politeness. It's from Choice, the journal of the ALA (makes recommendations about library purchase), and it's by G. Shivel of the University of Miami: "Davidson (Columbia) argues that the private costs of politeness, especially to women, arc too high. In her introduction she proposes to treat hypocrisy as morally neutral, but in her coda she articulates the goal as no less than the 'reconciliation of virtue and politeness.' She finds that politeness and truth too often exclude one another, with restraint either the shackle of oppression or the mask of hypocrisy. Davidson uncovers the insidiousness of politeness in 18th- and 19th-century fiction, especially Fielding's Pamela, and Austen's Mansfield Park. Other chapters cover the behavior of servants, expectations for women's manners, and adultery, including the willful reading of 'adultery' for 'gallantry' in contemporary interpretations of Lord Chesterfield's letters. John Locke enters the picture in an earnest but brief discussion of his 'Thoughts concerning Education' and his reaction to the 'servant problem.' Davidson has thoroughly absorbed, and carefully selects from, contemporary theoretical writings on literature, language, and society. She finds her best ammunition in the discussion of novels. Summing Up: Recommended. Graduate and research collections."

The Best American Essays 2004

Recently finished The Best American Essays 2004, edited by Louis Menand. It's a good one--this series is rather variable (well, it's a matter of taste--sometimes I really just don't see where the editor's coming from--I used the Hoagland one from 1999 several times in writing classes, but in Cynthia Ozick's one there was hardly anything I would have taught)--makes me miss the days where I was often teaching creative nonfiction/personal essay writing workshops, one of my very favorite things. My only complaint is that the volume's so heavy on New Yorker materials--not a problem in itself, but that's the one thing I read really regularly, so much of the material was familiar. A few thoughts:

Essays that I was completely bowled over by at the time & am glad to have in a collection I can keep to hand: Kathryn Chetkovich's "Envy" and Laura Hillenbrand's "A Sudden Illness," two truly remarkable essays that deserve to become classics. Put these into the next Norton Reader, please!

Some of the essays are more like what I'd call journalistic/argument-y pieces--I like Jared Diamond and I love Oliver Sacks, but in some ways I'd rather see the space saved in a volume like this for more "personal essay" type pieces.

My favorite piece in the collection: Wayne Koestenbaum's "My 80's." This essay is superb! I love Wayne's writing anyway, and will always remember TA'ing for his version of a Yale standard called "Daily Themes": it's always a good course, it's just very well-conceived and designed, but in Wayne's hands it became a work of genius. He is a remarkable stylist. A few of my favorite sections from this essay, which is constructed as a list of short paragraphs (I love listing, a technique I partly learned from Wayne):

"Too many of these sentences begin with the first-person singular pronoun. Later I may jazz up the syntax, falsify it."

"I am typing this essay on the IBM Correcting Selectric III typewriter I bought in 1981 for $1,000. I borrowed the money from my older brother, a cellist. It took me several years to pay him back."

"I read Derrida's Spurs (translated by Barbara Harlow). I wondered why he didn't use testicles--instead of vaginas or veils--as metaphors. Invaginate, indeed! In the 1980s I made snap judgments."

"I started dyeing my hair in 1984: reddish highlights. I stopped in 1988. I returned to nature."

"In 1989 I developed a sustaining, mood-brightening crush on the UPS man. Hundreds--thousands--of men and women in New Haven must have had a crush on that same UPS man. The first time he appeared at my doorstep with a package, I thought that a Candid Camera porn movie had just begun. If you want me to describe him, I will."

I also especially enjoyed essays by Anne Fadiman and Leonard Michaels and Kyoko Mori (whose essay "Yarn" was almost enough to make me go out and buy a pair of knitting needles) and Luc Sante.

One more thing. I pretty much restrict my comments here to thoughts on "light reading," things I read outside of work-related reading, and the occasional play. I don't write about music because I listen obsessively to a few things rather than interestingly to a lot of different things. I strictly exclude my personal life and my work life (the former because there's not much of it, or at least not much that's interesting, the latter because it seems to me that my students are owed complete privacy and much university-related business also concerns things that are confidental & better not discussed in a public forum--if you're on a search committee or an admissions committee or what have you, the least the applicants and your fellow committee members deserve from you is respect for their privacy). And I am certainly not planning on posting a response to the article by Jennifer Senior in the most recent issue of New York titled "Columbia's Own Middle East War." However, I do want to single out one quotation that I thought was excellent. It's Rashid Khalidi talking about the current controversy and he says this: "You know, it could be the case that there are students who have seriosu grievances and it's the case that threats to our academic freedom have developed over the last two years. This is a situation where you have to assume it's possible to walk and chew gum at the same time."

Monday, January 10, 2005


I have a million things--at least three years worth? probably more, I think that's an unrealistic estimate--to write first, but I do think that my next academic book is going to be a cross-over kind of thing, short and smart and elegant (I hope, anyway) without a lot of footnotes, that addresses some of the questions raised by Garry Wills in the short piece called "The End of the Enlightenment?" that he published as an editorial in the NYT the day after the presidential election this fall. This is Wills: "The results bring to mind a visit the Dalai Lama made to Chicago not long ago. I was one of the people deputized to ask him questions on the stage at the Field Museum. He met with the interrogators beforehand and asked us to give him challenging questions, since he is too often greeted with deference or flattery. The only one I could think of was: 'If you could return to your country, what would you do to change it?' He said that he would disestablish his religion, since 'America is the proper model.' I later asked him if a pluralist society were possible without the Enlightenment. 'Ah,' he said. 'That's the problem.' He seemed to envy America its Enlightenment heritage. Which raises the question: Can a people that believes more fervently in the Virgin Birth than in evolution still be called an Enlightened nation? America, the first real democracy in history, was a product of Enlightenment values - critical intelligence, tolerance, respect for evidence, a regard for the secular sciences. Though the founders differed on many things, they shared these values of what was then modernity. They addressed 'a candid world,' as they wrote in the Declaration of Independence, out of 'a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.' Respect for evidence seems not to pertain any more, when a poll taken just before the elections showed that 75 percent of Mr. Bush's supporters believe Iraq either worked closely with Al Qaeda or was directly involved in the attacks of 9/11. In his victory speech yesterday, President Bush indicated that he would 'reach out to the whole nation,' including those who voted for John Kerry. But even if he wanted to be more conciliatory now, the constituency to which he owes his victory is not a yielding one. He must give them what they want on things like judicial appointments. His helpers are also his keepers. The moral zealots will, I predict, give some cause for dismay even to nonfundamentalist Republicans. Jihads are scary things. It is not too early to start yearning back toward the Enlightenment."

This isn't what my book will be like, of course. (And I disagree with Wills's analysis, though I share some of his yearning for the Enlightement--sometimes to my own chagrin.) I want to write a book that will really explain what people mean now when they talk about the Enlightenment, what the political freight of the term might be in different contexts and how it came to be so ideologically loaded. (The critique of Enlightenment from the left--singling out the corrupt core of "universalist" values"--ended up colluding with the critique of Enlightenment from the right--its purported neglect of the religious in preference for the polemically secular--in ways that have had really awful consequences.) The project will make me read a lot of stuff I'll learn from, historians talking about the Enlightenment in France and Germany as well as things like the Federalist Papers that I've only really dipped into so far. Anyway, just a late-night meditation on future projects...

I have just spent a decadent

and delightful evening rereading one of my very short-list absolute favorite novels of all time, James Baldwin's Just Above My Head. It's one of those novels that you really want to weep when you finish, partly because it's so moving but mostly just because you can't believe it's over. David Copperfield always makes me feel this way, and my very beloved The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West. It combines the best elements of his essay-writing (and of course Baldwin's essays are just superb, I think that's really his most fundamental mode) with the best of novel-writing in a way that I don't think his other fiction really does. Books like Giovanni's Room and Another Country are impressive but just don't have the same satisfactions as this one--I wish more people would read it, and teach it (though I imagine its length and its sort of waywardness in terms of formal structure and its relatively late publication date make it much less likely to be taught in college classes than those others).

Sunday, January 09, 2005

And one more gripe

I haven't found a link to post to, since the online "Editors' Choice" at the NYTBR seems rather more ecumenical, but the print version just made me have a majorly Cupcake moment. So this is the print list of the editors' "other recent books of particular interest": David Riggs, World of Christopher Marlowe; Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, De Kooning biography; Amoz Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness; Michael Kauffman's biography of John Wilkes Booth; the New Yorker Cartoons book; selected letters of Tennessee Williams; Richard Overy's book about Hitler and Stalin; Max Hastings book about the last stages of WWII; George Plimpton's "The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair" (self-explanatory); Warren St John's "Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Journey into the Heart of Fan Mania"; and Bob Cowser's "Dream Season: a Professor Joins America's Oldest Semi-Pro Football Team." DOES ANYTHING STRIKE YOU ABOUT THIS LIST OF CHOICES?!?! It's not that I think these lists really have a major impact. But come on, guys. Could this be more male-slanted? And why no books on science, psychology, biology--the stuff that's really good and where I don't care if the authors/subjects are male or female? This focus on sports, American political history and male-dominated Arts and Letters (Marlowe, De Kooning, Oz and Williams are cool and all, but STILL...) is really alienating.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

I realize

that this griping about the NYTBR is quite pointless--and I don't disagree with the idea that they should review "popular" fiction--but I can't believe they gave a full page to Alan Dershowitz writing about John Grisham's latest! It includes a description of Richard North Patterson as "our best contemporary political novelist"...?!?!?

The full review is here, and this is the paragraph that just blew my mind: "There are few writers today capable of producing political novels of the quality of those once written by C. P. Snow and Alan Drury. Our best contemporary political novelist, Richard North Patterson, spends months interviewing the politicians upon whom he loosely bases his characters. He also masters the political issues he writes about -- abortion, gun control, capital punishment. Compared with Patterson's likelife presidents, senators, congressmen and lobbyists, Grisham's political characters are stick figures -- entirely predictable stereotypes without flesh and blood."

Tales of the Otori

I've just read a most wonderful trilogy of books by Lian Hearn (a pseudonym for the Australian children's author Gillian Rubinstein), Tales of the Otori. I liked the very first one the most, Across the Nightingale Floor, but the second--Grass for His Pillow--and third--The Brilliance of the Moon--are both excellent as well. The setting is really well and fully imagined (it's a kind of fantasy feudal Japan, but pretty soundly historically based as far as I can tell) and the prose style is superb--plain and clear but very striking as well. This is the big shortcoming of many even quite good fantasy tales, and it's what made these books a particular pleasure to read. You can see the author drawn more and more strongly towards a kind of historical saga-writing that's not exactly my cup of tea, but these books are EXCELLENT. In fact, pretty much what I always walk into the Bank Street Bookstore every month to look for--I have this deep conviction that somehow since the last time I went in two or three really wonderful new YA fantasy trilogies will have appeared on the shelves, and I am always disappointed since I've read the good ones already. That's why I wrote Dynamite No. 1 (which awaits one more round of revision--however I've made headway with all my other work, so I think I can start with this tomorrow)--it's the book I most want to read and fail to find. In fact I had a strong fellow feeling for Hearn as I read these novels--on the surface they're COMPLETELY different from what I'm working on (my novel's set in an alternate-universe 1930s Edinburgh, featuring a sort of melange of science and technology and spiritualism that is very much grounded in real history but also in practical rather than mystical things), but the underlying interests are remarkably similar. I am delighted with these books! I gather that Hearn's written 2 more volumes but hasn't yet decided whether to publish them. I really hope she does.

Friday, January 07, 2005


I really can't seem to stop reading novels now I've started. It's reprehensible. I read an excellent one last night, though, a recommendation from Sarah Weinman: Peter Temple's Identity Theory. It's fabulous! I am outraged that this is the guy's first novel to be published in the US; Australian-published fiction is surprisingly difficult to get hold of over here. (I rely on various university libraries that are linked by BorrowDirect to Columbia's for a lot of the British and Irish fiction I read; at least a few of these libraries regularly buy the lists of small presses like Serpent's Tail and so on, not just the big-name ones like Faber etc. All these libraries usually have two copies of new novels that would have been published first in the UK, for instance--there will be the UK and the US editions of someonelike Kate Atkinson, in other words. But Australian fiction doesn't seem to be on the radar in the same way. It's a great pity, too. I was terribly thwarted when I couldn't get hold of Emily Maguire's novel earlier this summer--I can't wait for it to come out from Serpent's Tail.) Anyway, someone should buy up his earlier list & bring them all out directly to paperback & sell huge numbers of copies. He's a really good writer, and it's a really complex but well-worked-out plot that had me wondering whether I could try to write something like that, which is always a good sign.

I also saw a not-particularly-good production of Chekhov's Three Sisters: it had some good ideas, but the gimmicks quickly grew old. I was disappointed--it had sounded pretty interesting beforehand.

And I am in the throes of this Leslie Farber fixation--I think I won't really write anything much here, I really must try and write some kind of an essay about all this, but here are a few thoughts. EVERYONE should read Farber's essays--the most readily available collection is The Ways of the Will (a selected/expanded edition). My favorite is the one called "Lying on the Couch," which seems to me both brilliant and absolutely obvious, so that you can't believe nobody ever saw it like this before. Here's a brief quotation, just to give the taste of it: "Revelation is addictive because the pursuit of the esthetic--at the expense of the accurate--is essentially coarsening. Ordinary, fragmentary truth, on a more modest scale, appears by contrast trivial and inadequate--appears, in short, untrue, sincce it so conspicuously lacks the splendor and intensity of feeling by which one has come to recognize the validity of revelation. In this way one's assumptions about truth fasten on the revelatory, and this habit of discovery quickly becomes addictive." And also of great, great interest to almost anyone who cares about good prose/mental illness/ethics and the intellect is Emily Fox Gordon's memoir about her treatment by Farber (it's about other things too, but that's its moral center), Mockingbird Years: A Life In and Out of Therapy. It is absolutely wonderful! I loved it. I read it in a single sitting, it's extremely addictive. It has some obvious points in common with Girl, Interrupted but it's a completely different kind of book.

Interesting article

by Stanley Fish in the Chronicle, on the rise of religion and the history of separation of church and state. This touches on things I'm thinking about for my next book--though at the rate I'm going, I'm never going to finish either of the books I'm working on now & there won't be a next book at all... but I think it will be something more crossover, less academic, a book about the Enlightenment that will explain how and why that term is so often invoked in contemporary American political discourse (usually as something that has just recently ended, with the rise of militant Islam and fundamentalist Christianity).

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Two detective novels

and I didn't enjoy either of them very much (which probably means that it's time for me to STOP WASTING MY TIME READING NOVELS and get properly back to work--funny how quickly self-indulgence goes from being enjoyable to being a torment). The first was Simon Kernick's The Murder Exchange, which I didn't like nearly as much as his first one. The writing felt a bit flat and neither of the two first-person narrators really came to life. It picked up a bit towards the end, though. The second was Peter Robinson's Playing with Fire, which was pretty much exactly what you'd expect. Perfectly fine, but nothing special. I must confess that I always have to remind myself that Robinson is not the same writer as Reginald Hill, their detectives (Alan Banks for Robinson, Peter Pascoe for Hill) seem to be cut so much from the same cloth.

"God (or Not), Physics and, of Course, Love: Scientists Take a Leap"

John Brockman asked various scientists about what they believed in but couldn't prove; the NYT prints some of those answers, including a really sweet one by David Buss, a psychologist at the University of Texas (and here's the link for the article):

I've spent two decades of my professional life studying human mating. In that time, I've documented phenomena ranging from what men and women desire in a mate to the most diabolical forms of sexual treachery. I've discovered the astonishingly creative ways in which men and women deceive and manipulate each other. I've studied mate poachers, obsessed stalkers, sexual predators and spouse murderers. But throughout this exploration of the dark dimensions of human mating, I've remained unwavering in my belief in true love.
While love is common, true love is rare, and I believe that few people are fortunate enough to experience it. The roads of regular love are well traveled and their markers are well understood by many - the mesmerizing attraction, the ideational obsession, the sexual afterglow, profound self-sacrifice and the desire to combine DNA. But true love takes its own course through uncharted territory. It knows no fences, has no barriers or boundaries. It's difficult to define, eludes modern measurement and seems scientifically woolly. But I know true love exists. I just can't prove it.


I read a book of poetry, Craig Dworkin's Dure, a sort of meditation on a strange and compelling image of Durer's. Favorite sentence: "Lips lie parched and parcel where a tremble meant tear, or cheer, depending on the tongue." My friend MG loaned it to me after I was pigheadedly talking about how I never read any poetry. (Which I don't. If I'm going to read something that asks you to consume it in small chunks on which you then ruminate, I would rather read something like this or this or this. However honesty compels me to admit that 99 times out of a hundred I will just be reading a novel anyway.) I will seek out Dworkin's other books, though; I liked this one a lot.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Further restoration

of my mental health: just finished Terry Pratchett's latest Discworld novel, Going Postal. Good stuff. Another find on the new-book shelf at the local public library branch: I often lurk there just after the new year to see if they've got any books that could be called new rather than just "new." (Public library users will take my point.) If I was a gazillionaire I would make a huge donation towards the book-buying budgets for the branch libraries, so that they'd really have all the exciting new books, and then give them enough money that they could stay open for 50 hours a week and have programs for kids after-school. I love libraries.

Monday, January 03, 2005

A mental health day

I decided this morning that I had to have one more day of reading novels before returning to work. Happily I found Jennifer Weiner's Little Earthquakes at the public library; I thought it was quite good but will be more interesting to people with children than without. Also finished Adam Phillips' Darwin's Worms: On Life Stories and Death Stories, which was excellent (another recommendation from Ken Bruen). A taste of it: "If mortality was a flaw, or a punishment, we were always verging on humiliation. Tyrannical fantasies of our own perfectibility still lurk in even our simplest ideals, Darwin and Freud intimate, so that any ideal can become another excuse for punishment. Lives dominated by impossible ideals--complete honesty, absolute knowledge, perfect happiness, eternal love--are lives experienced as continuous failure." I also dipped into his collection Promises, Promises: Essays on Literature and Psychoanalysis. I got it because I wanted to read the essay on Leslie Farber, who I've been interested in recently, and read most of the essays that didn't have directly to do with poetry. Especially good: "On Translating a Person"; "On Eating, and Preferring Not To"; "Farber's Quibble"; "Christopher Hill's Revolution and Me"; and my favorite, "Sameness is All" (I'd read this one before, it's about cloning, but it struck me more this time round). Here is Phillips on a teenage patient of his who fantasizes about having a girlfriend who will be his clone: "The fantasy of the clone girlfriend--not exactly a rarity--was for this boy an all-purpose magical solution. A way of preempting what you do about, or with, the parts of yourself that have nothing 'in common' with an object of desire. What is of interest is that the (narcissistic) solution of creating absolute sameness--the clone--unconsciously kills desire. The fantasy of cloning a girlfriend is a fantasy of not needing a girlfriend. The exact replication of the self mrerely replicates the problem."

Phillips is a great writer, but he provokes strong feelings in me, ones that often come up when I read psychoanalytically inclined critics & that clearly themselves represent some kind of a symptom. I really admire this guy's intellect & style and yet I want to wrestle with it; I have an irritable feeling of wanting to copy-edit and wrench his thoughts into the way I'd say them. Reading his prose definitely brings out my competitive instincts, and my critical ones (he's got a few annoying mannerisms that could be helpfully eradicated--those awful locutions like "as it were" and "so to speak" and the habit of bracketing thoughts between dashes even before he's really got going on a sentence). And this is comical--I fell asleep after reading these essays and had a sort of half-waking dream where I was sure that at the end of the volume was Phillips's reprinted review of my novel Heredity! Which he has of course never seen or read. I'd be interested to hear what he would think of it, though. Don't I sound like a wretched egomaniac today? Now I must go and read another novel I think. Or perhaps do a bit of work--I must write my review of Malcolm Gladwell's new book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking; and I must finish commenting on my graduate students' papers from the fall semester; and I must... but this is defeating the purpose of my mental health day.