Tuesday, May 31, 2005

It was pressed upon me

yesterday at a barbecue by my dear old friend T. and his friend C.--they swore it was the best thing ever--and they were right. Just finished the attractively named Don't point that thing at me, published in a value-for-money volume called The Mortdecai Trilogy (the author's Kyril Bonfiglioli, and you can also get the novel in a volume on its own, if you prefer). Excellent! Excellent! Excellent! The guys who recommended it to me are big Wodehouse fans, and there's certainly a bit of that here, but it's much darker and campier and funnier--Wodehouse infused with Derek Raymond, my particularly most favorite English noir writer. If you want more of the flavor before making a commitment to spend money, read this very charming New Yorker essay about Bonfiglioli by Leo Carey (it's got lots of excerpts from the novels). Here's one of my picks for most representative and likeable passage:

'Jock,' I said crisply, 'we are going to defenestrate Mr Martland.'
Jock's eyes lit up.
'I'll get a razor blade, Mr Charlie.'
'No no, Jock, wrong word. I mean we're going to push him out of a window. Your bedroom window, I think. Yes, and we'll undress him first and say that he was making advances to you and jumped out of the window in a frenzy of thwarted love.'
'I say, Charlie, really, what a filthy rotten idea; I mean, think of my wife.'
'I never think of policeman's wives, their beauty maddens me like wine. Anyway, the sodomy bit will make your Minister slap a D-Notice on the whole thing, which is good for both of us.'
Jock was already leading him from the room by means of the 'Quiet Come-Along' which painfully involves the victim's little finger. Jock had learned that one from a mental nurse. Capable lads, those.
Jock's bedroom, as ever, was bursting with what passes for fresh air in W.I, the stuff was streaming in from the wide-open window. (Why do people build houses to keep the climate out, then cut holes in the walls to let it in again? I shall never understand.)
'Show Mr Martland the spiky railings in the area, Jock,' I said nastily. (You've no idea how nasty my voice can be when I try. I was an adjutant once, in your actual Guards.) Jock held him out so that he could see the railings then started to undress him. He just stood there, unresisting, a shaky smile trembling at one corner of his mouth, until Jock began to unbuckle his belt. Then he started to talk, rapidly.

Monday, May 30, 2005

The Y chromosome

I am fond of science fiction as a category, but fussy about what I like (my crime fiction tastes are much more promiscuous), so it was with great delight that I read a truly EXCELLENT s-f novel, Life by Gwyneth Jones. I read Bold As Love a few years ago (can't remember how I heard about it--some random mention of a rewriting of the King Arthur myth caught my attention?), really loved it but found it impossible to get hold of the sequel. However all seem to be more easily available now than last time I checked, when I had to get the English edition through BorrowDirect at the library. Must get that sequel.... Anyway, Life is amazing! My perfect science-fiction novel, a really excellent read, with all the kind of biology stuff I most enjoy and an attractive main character and good research-scientist story and interesting feminism/gender thing going down. It's got interests distinctly overlapping with the much higher-profile Darwin's Radio, by Greg Bear; but where that's a high-concept science-fiction thriller (I liked it a lot, don't get me wrong, but it's not in the end my kind of a book), this one's much more subtle in the writing and really imaginative and powerful in its conception as well. Read it if you have any taste for science fiction whatsover! (Also if you like novels and science but don't care for science fiction.)

I've been thinking about this whole "not for everyone" book controversy, spurred initially by a piece by Anne Burke that you can read here, and summed up in her following statement:

One of the reviewers’ favorite lines about Dalkey Archive titles is that—even when the reviewer is generally praising the book—they aren’t “for everyone.” A number of years ago, this line seemed to be a requirement for any reviewer at the New York Times Book Review or NPR. Its latest appearance is in a review by—of all places—the Complete Review (perhaps the most interesting review source on the net), which recently reviewed Patrik Ourednik’s Europeana. Since these reviewers seem to know that a book “isn’t for everyone,” then should we assume that they have a list of books that are for everyone? Surely they must. Let us also assume that they would all agree that such authors as Homer, Shakespeare, Joyce, Proust, and Faulkner are “not for everyone.” So, since they appear to use “for everyone” as a standard to which writers should aspire, what books could possibly achieve this universal acclaim that Europeana fails to achieve? The only one that comes to mind is The Little Engine That Could. I’ve never heard any complaint whatsoever about this book.

All reviewers, in the future, should be required to list at least five books that they see as “for everyone,” a practice that might allow us to judge their tastes and intelligence rather than simply using the phrase to dismiss a book that they seem unable to dismiss in any other way, or at least any way that can stand a close inspection[.]

(And here's the response at the Complete Review, which includes links to other blog discussions if you scroll down to the bottom of the post.)

I want to stand up for the usefulness of the phrase "not for everyone." I don't think I'd use it in a print review, I see the objection that it's lazy, but in a blog entry about a book, what's wrong with it? Seriously, I love Gwyneth Jones, but her books are not for everyone. I read a lot of books that I like very much, but there's a lot of variety in the ways that I would then recommend them to others: there are books that have a remarkably widespread appeal, and others--no less good--with a narrower one. I'm not talking here mainly about genre issues, though I will note in passing that people who say they don't read science fiction or don't read crime fiction are missing out on some of the best novels around. And judgments like this are of course also very personal--I bet that nobody would agree with every single judgment I make below, and it's wholly possible that someone might make exactly the opposite set of judgments. But I would say that everybody should read Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go but that while Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty is a work of complete genius & one of the best novels of 2004 & one of my FAVORITE novels of 2004 it is nonetheless "not for everyone." A novel that is demanding or deliberately difficult in its prose style might not be for everybody. A novel that is full of explicit violent or sexual content might not be for everybody. A novel that just has a very distinctive sensibility of one kind or another might not be for everybody. Whereas there are novels that in some other sense really are suitable for the widest possible audience, whatever that audience might think about its genre preferences etc.--Kate Atkinson's Case Histories is a book like this, and so is American Gods by Neil Gaiman, and so are older novels--here's where I'm getting onto shakier ground, I'd guess--by Dickens or Austen or my very beloved James Baldwin. Novels written for the widest possible human constituency, as opposed to novels about which it can legitimately be said that they are "not for everyone." (BTW I do think Homer and Shakespeare are for everyone, but wouldn't make the same allowance about Joyce, Proust or Faulkner.)

Must get off the soapbox now and go and get some work done....

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Very 'Flowers in the Attic'

Just finished reading Kelly Braffet's Josie and Jack. There's no doubt this is an excellent first novel, but in the end, I didn't like it as much as I expected to. Partly it's a bit too 'literary' for my taste (though there are some really striking passages: "Suddenly I was intensely unhappy: forceful, tidal-wave unhappiness, the kind that washes over you and fills your ears and your eyes and your lungs. Sometimes when I feel that way it helps to get drunk, but it's like shoring up a high-rise with playing cards. Sooner or later something happens--a word or a song or a turn of phrase or, more often, an unwelcome memory--and everything comes crashing down"). Partly it suffered from comparison to two rather similar books I'd just read--literally I started them all the same week, this was the one I put aside--I liked The Bitch Posse most, it's brilliantly well-written and (I am sorry to say) most fits my memory of what being a teenage girl feels like. Then I read gods in Alabama, which isn't nearly so remarkable but is very delightful in its own way, with an extremely attractive main character & a similarly persuasive account of teenager-ness. So Josie and Jack is a very good novel, don't get me wrong, but I enjoyed it less than either of the others. Trying to put my finger on what felt wrong, I decided that this one romanticizes adolescence in a way the others refuse to. There's a Goth-y, Flowers-in-the-Attic, doomed-tubercular-Shelley-type sensibility here that I didn't share even when I was a teenager and have relatively little sympathy for now. I wished Josie would just get a temp job and move on! Seriously....

Spent the last couple days reading a really EXCELLENT novel that I will blog about elsewhere, so won't write more about now. It's Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian. In three words: Believe The Hype!

Friday, May 27, 2005

Another excellent concert

this time at the Tenri Cultural Institute. The Line C3 percussion group playing an assortment of (all very interesting and satisfactory) pieces, including Nico's Ta & Clap (which you can listen to if you follow the link; highly recommended, it's well worth the minor trouble). I like percussion--and surely of all instrumentalists, percussionists (barring those very ponderous tympanists you get in regional symphony orchestras) are the most intelligent and funny?

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

An interesting piece

(the confessions of a compulsive reader, which of course caught my attention) by Lauren Baratz-Logsted over at MoorishGirl. It includes this very sensible observation: "When I first started reviewing books, I read every word, just as I had compulsively read every word of every book I'd read up to that point in my life. But somewhere into my 292-book reviewing career with [Publishers Weekly], I discovered something: if I could tell by page five that a book was not going to be to my taste, that I would in fact hate it, the resulting review was about as nasty as it could get. After all, I'd suffered. Why, then, would there be any grace left in me? So I learned, in those cases, to skim judiciously. And I discovered that I could still review a book both descriptively and analytically, and yet the resulting review was fairer, because I was no longer bitter. There was no longer a need for me to be cruel and I cannot help but think the world a better place with a little less cruelty."

Saw a great concert last night

at 21st Century Schizoid Music--Downstairs at the Cornelia Street Cafe, featuring ACME (" the American Contemporary Music Ensemble is dedicated to the outstanding performance of contemporary masterworks for chamber ensemble, principally written by American composers. The dynamic ensemble's concerts are a unique blend of intelligent performance and vibrant energy"). I was there in particular for an amazing piece for viola and tape, Keep In Touch, by Nico Muhly; it was played spectacularly well by Nadia Sirota, who's definitely another one to watch. (And Nico's Ta & Clap will have its American premiere on Friday evening at the Tenri Institute.) But the rest of the program was great too: there was an Ives string quartet I could have done without, but also a really excellent and intellectually stringent piece by Charles Wuorinen, Grand Union for cello and percussion (also played very well by Clarice Jensen), and a lovely string quartet by Kevin Volans that I'd never heard before. Very enjoyable.

Monday, May 23, 2005

I had a delightfully reclusive weekend

finishing my novel revisions, virtually no human contact whatsoever, so of course there was time for some light reading. Four enjoyable novels, though nothing in the end completely earth-shattering (they're all good, really, but suffered in comparison to a few extraordinary ones I've read recently--or perhaps I was just in a jaundiced frame of mind, since I see a pattern emerges below): gods in Alabama, by Joshilyn Jackson (a prime example of why I love lit blogs--I'd never have picked this up if I hadn't seen the author-to-author interview at Beatrice--I really liked it, it's smart and funny and everything chick-lit should be but isn't, but it isn't as good as the truly exceptional The Bitch Posse, with which it shares a number of features); Shannon Hale's Enna Burning (good, but not as good as The Goose Girl, to which it's a sequel); Midnighters 1: The Secret Hour by Scott Westerfeld (I loved some things about this--the thirteen-letter words!!!--but in the end it didn't quite work for me, mostly because the main characters are a little flat--it feels too much like series fiction, I love young-adult trilogies but don't love young-adult series and this somehow was more like the latter than the former; but I am looking forward to reading his other stuff, this had lots good in it); and The Sunday Philosophy Club by the dreaded Alexander McCall Smith. I've held out against this guy for a long time--I simply will not read books with such coy and cutesy titles (though I see that I have a "No. 1" in my novel title as well, not sure if this counts as some kind of a Freudian slip or just a failure of self-knowledge?). I picked this up randomly at the library. I enjoyed it while I was reading it (the main character thinks about writing an article "In Praise of Hypocrisy" that actually sounds exactly like my academic book, which opens with the sentence "Very few people are willing to speak up for hypocrisy"), but afterwards I felt the reading experience had been quite thin. I am not a reader for whom the words "charming" and "whimsical" are compliments, and this book is certainly charming and whimsical. However perhaps I'm not being fair--he's certainly an unobtrusive and skilled stylist, and I suppose I will be interested to see how far he develops Isabel's character flaws in the next one(s). Perhaps I'm not doing McCall Smith justice, but I felt that he was too kind to his character--he could have taken a lesson from Austen's Emma and handled her a little more ruthlessly....

I'm laughing at myself

for as usual having been ridiculously overoptimistic about how long this novel (that's Dynamite No. 1) would take me to write. I started this blog in May 2004--I was about 90% finished with the first draft & cheerfully predicted that I'd use the blog to describe my progress towards completion and publication. Well, it's 12 months later--I finished the draft in June 2004, I did a minor rewrite in August 2004 and major rewrites in October-November 2004, January-February 2005 and March-May 2005. I never say anything about the novel because I don't want to jinx it! (Not until I have a book contract will there be any details here. I will say, though, that I've just sent the latest--I hope sort-of-temporarily-final--version to the genius agent, and will wait to hear what she thinks.) If you're interested, there's a description of the whole project if you scroll to the bottom of this interview; and I thought I'd paste in a few paragraphs as well. This scene comes in chapter five:

At half-past seven, Sophie changed into a faded pink cotton frock and a soft gray cardigan she had reclaimed from the rubbish after Peggy pronounced a verdict of moth. She found the sitting-room downstairs full of ladies of all shapes and sizes. None of them noticed Sophie come in, and she was able to stand by the door and review the room in peace.

Her eyes kept coming back to a large woman in black who sat by herself in the corner, holding her heavy body upright like someone not sure of her welcome. The oppressiveness of her presence, together with the dense jet beading of her bodice, persuaded Sophie that this must be the medium.

As the mantel clock struck eight and Great-aunt Tabitha began to round up the guests and herd them into the dining room, Sophie was surprised to find the woman’s eyes meet her own. When Sophie smiled and gave an awkward half-nod—she didn’t want to but she couldn’t help herself—the medium simply stared at her, not turning away until Sophie’s great-aunt arrived at her side to escort her in to supper in the next room.

Supper was the usual ordeal, food-wise, though lots of the women swallowed their spoonfuls of haddock soup (its gelatinous consistency beyond rational explanation) in a calm way that betrayed a familiarity with institutional cooking.

For pudding, there was a choice of gooseberry fool or stewed fruit. Sophie asked for the apricots, which were bland and inoffensive. She decided not to take a sponge finger from the biscuit barrel when it came round. Sophie’s great-aunt insisted on Peggy making them at home rather than buying the packets of ready-made ones at the shop, which she said were low-class. When they weren’t soggy, which they quite often were, they had a texture like corrugated cardboard. As Sophie watched, the lady across from her picked one up and dipped it into her pudding before taking a small bite, then put it hastily back on the side plate, a funny expression on her face. Had she broken a tooth?

As the maids came in to clear the table, Sophie’s great-aunt stood and announced the order of affairs for the rest of the evening. Great-aunt Tabitha would examine the medium in private, in the presence of two fully paid-up members of the Caledonian Guild of Spiritualist Inspectors. Meanwhile Miss Gillespie would organize the others into a sitters’ circle in the conservatory at the back of the house.

Sophie had already got up from her chair and folded her napkin when her great-aunt appeared beside her, looking worried.

“Sophie, this is quite irregular, but Mrs. Tansy has asked for you to join us upstairs for the examination.”

Sophie could not help looking over at the medium, whose impassive face and folded arms did not conceal the fact that her eyes rested directly on Sophie. Sophie couldn’t imagine why the woman wanted her there, but there was no good reason to say no.

She followed the other women up the stairs, Great-aunt Tabitha leading the procession like a brisk but demented mother duck. They made their way to a little-used bedroom on the top floor, directly opposite Sophie’s. It was wretchedly cold and damp and the fireplace looked as if it hadn’t been used for years.

Though she had read about this kind of thing, Sophie had a bad feeling it would be quite different in person. What happened next was absolutely awful. Under Great-aunt Tabitha’s penetrating eye, the two inspectors stripped the medium completely naked. One woman searched her—Sophie blushed and looked away when the medium was asked to bend over so her body cavities could be checked for the concealed lengths of muslin used to fake ectoplasm—while the second inspector carefully examined each item of clothing.

Sophie had never seen a grown-up person without any clothes on. She couldn’t take her eyes away from the vast expanse of flesh: the enormous breasts, yellow and goose-pimpled in the cold, the folds of fat over the woman’s hips and abdomen, the imbalance between her bulky thighs and skinny calves. Worst were the raw red marks where the woman’s steel-boned corset had printed her body. In places the chafing had actually broken the skin.

Sophie dared not look at the woman’s face until the inspectors had given her back her undergarments and a cloak to cover herself. What she saw there puzzled her. Instead of the humiliation or anger you might have expected, the medium wore an expression of calm satisfaction. As Sophie’s eyes met hers, the woman’s face broke into a disturbing smile like a person gloating over a private victory.

When they reached the conservatory, the medium’s wrists were tied with tape, the knots sealed with wax and the ends of the tape tied to the chairs on either side of her. Eight chairs had been arranged in a circle around a black-and-gold lacquered table of vaguely Japanese provenance.

They took their seats, Sophie choosing one as far from the medium as possible. The maid dimmed the lamps and stood waiting by the door in case they needed anything else.

“Join hands,” Great-aunt Tabitha intoned, “to promote the energy-flow between the sitters. Spirits of the Great Beyond, we are gathered this evening in the company of your servant Mrs. Patricia Tansy in the hope that we will be honored by some sign of your presence. We will hear anything you wish to impart about life on the Other Side. We await your instructions.”

Most of the women had closed their eyes, but Sophie opened hers a crack, just enough to sneak a look round the table. The sitters’ hands were clasped together, each pair of hands resting on the table in front of them. The medium was absolutely motionless, her glassy eyes staring off into the middle distance.

When the voice came, Sophie jumped and almost lost her grip on the hands on either side of her.

“Who calls me here?”

It was a man’s voice, and it seemed to emanate from a point in mid-air several feet above the medium’s head. The accent was lightly German or Scandinavian, Sophie couldn’t tell which, altogether unlike the medium’s lowland brogue.

“I do,” said Great-aunt Tabitha, her voice not faltering at all.

“I cannot tell of life on the other side,” said the voice, “for I speak to you from limbo. Though my body has long since fallen to dust, my soul is not yet able to leave its shell. I answer your call for another reason. I am here to speak to the youngest one amongst you, whose help I require to release me from my mortal coil.”

The table rocked slightly beneath their hands. Several women gasped.

To Sophie’s dismay, she felt a slight breeze and the sensation of a hand touching her face, a feeling so real that she could hardly believe the message of her eyes that nothing was there.

“Sophie, dear child,” said the voice. Its disembodied use of the endearment was frankly disconcerting. “Do not be afraid. I come to warn you of great danger and to tell you to be careful whom you trust in weeks to come. A journey lies ahead of you, and I count on seeing you myself before too long. I have arranged for help along the way. Your future depends upon your past, but the way from the present to the future is cloudy. Meanwhile you must follow the one your heart inclines to, and keep your own counsel.”

The hand brushed through her hair and then left in a whoosh like air rushing to fill the space at the top of a jam-jar when you first pop open the lid. Sophie wanted to scoff but her pulse was racing so fast she thought she might faint.

Most of the women had opened their eyes now, though the dim light made it difficult to see much. The medium groaned. Then her face convulsed into a rictus so horrible it reminded Sophie of a gruesome illustration in a book she’d once seen, a police photograph of a dead woman lying on the floor of a grand Paris apartment with her throat cut. The shadow cast by the fastening of the medium’s cloak exactly mimicked the gaping hole of that wound.

To be continued....

Saturday, May 21, 2005

On 'The Mysteries of Pittsburgh'

An interesting essay by Michael Chabon at The New York Review of Books, about writing his first novel. My attention was especially caught by these paragraphs about genre fiction versus the other kind:

The truth was that I had come to a rough patch in my understanding of what I wanted my writing to be. I was in a state of confusion. Over the past four years I had been struggling to find a way to accommodate my taste for the genre fiction I had been reading with the greatest pleasure for the better part of my life--fantasy, horror, crime, and science fiction--to the way that I had come to feel about the English language, which was that it and I seemed to have something going. Something (on my side at least) much closer to deep, passionate, physical, and intellectual love than anything else I had ever experienced with a human up to that point. But when it came to the use of language, somehow, my verbal ambition and my ability felt hard to frame or fulfill within the context of traditional genre fiction. I had found some writers, such as J.G. Ballard, Italo Calvino, J.L. Borges, and Donald Barthelme, who wrote at the critical point of language, where vapor turns to starry plasma, and yet who worked, at least sometimes, in the terms and tropes of genre fiction. They all paid a price, however. The finer and more masterly their play with language, the less connected to the conventions of traditional, bourgeois narrative form--unified point of view, coherent causal sequence of events, linear structure, naturalistic presentation--their fiction seemed to become. Duly I had written my share of pseudo-Ballard, quasi-Calvino, and neo-Borges. I had fun doing it. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't stop preferring traditional, bourgeois narrative form.

I wanted to tell stories, the kind with set pieces and long descriptive passages, and 'round' characters, and beginnings and middles and ends. And I wanted to instill--or rather I didn't want to lose--that quality, inherent in the best science fiction, which was sometimes called "the sense of wonder." If my subject matter couldn't do it—if I wasn't writing about people who sailed through neutron stars or harnessed suns together—then it was going to fall to my sentences themselves to open up the heads of my readers and decant into them enough crackling plasma to light up the eye sockets for a week.

But I didn't want to write science fiction, or a version of science fiction, some kind of pierced-and-tattooed, doctorate-holding, ironical stepchild of science fiction. I wanted to write something with reach. Welty and Faulkner started and ended in small towns in Mississippi but somehow managed to plant flags at the end of time and in the minds of readers around the world. A good science fiction novel appeared to have an infinite reach—it could take you to the place where the universe bent back on itself—but somehow, in the end, it ended up being the shared passion of just you and that guy at the Record Graveyard on Forbes Avenue who was really into Hawkwind.

I wasn't considering any actual, numerical readership here—I wasn't so bold. Rather I was thinking about the set of axioms that speculative fiction assumed, and how it was a set that seemed to narrow and refine and program its audience, like a protein that coded for a certain suite of traits. Most science fiction seemed to be written for people who already liked science fiction; I wanted to write stories for anyone, anywhere, living at any time in the history of the world. (Twenty-one, I was twenty-one!)

Friday, May 20, 2005

Sad to learn

from the Literary Saloon at the complete review that the Israeli novelist Batya Gur has died. Her books are really wonderful, sort of the ideal detective fiction (not at all like Henning Mankell or Ian Rankin in their texture, but similarly a very well-executed version of a very good kind of thing). I think my favorite is Murder on a Kibbutz: A Communal Case, but I've also got a soft spot for A Literary Murder and Murder Duet--oh, they're all great, anyway, and I think that The Saturday Morning Murder is the first in the series. Highly recommended--they are often compared to P.D. James, but they are much better than any but the couple best classic James novels, and infinitely better than any of her recent ones.

The highland mangabey

A new species of monkey has been discovered in Africa: "The newly discovered monkey, a tree-dwelling creature, is about three feet long, with long brownish fur. It has a crest of hair on its head and abundant whiskers. Unlike other Lophocebus mangabeys, which communicate with a 'whoop gobble,' the new species has an unusual 'honk bark,' the researchers said." If you click on the link at the NYT, you can hear a recording....

I have this

doubtless completely mistaken idea that everyone reads the New Yorker as faithfully as I do--it arrives on Monday evenings and unless I'm having a really busy week (or have an unusually good supply of light reading) I usually read the whole issue all at once on Monday night, barring the fiction, which I almost always skip--it is staggering how much less interesting it usually is than everything else in the issue. So I don't usually link to stuff there. But this week has an especially funny piece by Anthony Lane about Revenge of the Sith:

The general opinion of 'Revenge of the Sith' seems to be that it marks a distinct improvement on the last two episodes, 'The Phantom Menace' and 'Attack of the Clones.' True, but only in the same way that dying from natural causes is preferable to crucifixion. So much here is guaranteed to cause either offense or pain, starting with the nineteen-twenties leather football helmet that Natalie Portman suddenly dons for no reason, and rising to the continual horror of Ewan McGregor's accent. 'Another happy landing'--or, to be precise, 'anothah heppy lending'--he remarks, as Anakin parks the front half of a burning starcruiser on a convenient airstrip. The young Obi-Wan Kenobi is not, I hasten to add, the most nauseating figure onscreen; nor is R2-D2 or even C-3PO, although I still fail to understand why I should have been expected to waste twenty-five years of my life following the progress of a beeping trash can and a gay, gold-plated Jeeves.

No, the one who gets me is Yoda. May I take the opportunity to enter a brief plea in favor of his extermination? Any educated moviegoer would know what to do, having watched that helpful sequence in 'Gremlins' when a small, sage-colored beastie is fed into an electric blender. A fittingly frantic end, I feel, for the faux-pensive stillness on which the Yoda legend has hung. At one point in the new film, he assumes the role of cosmic shrink--squatting opposite Anakin in a noirish room, where the light bleeds sideways through slatted blinds. Anakin keeps having problems with his dark side, in the way that you or I might suffer from tennis elbow, but Yoda, whose reptilian smugness we have been encouraged to mistake for wisdom, has the answer. 'Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose,' he says. Hold on, Kermit, run that past me one more time. If you ever got laid (admittedly a long shot, unless we can dig you up some undiscerning alien hottie with a name like Jar Jar Gabor), and spawned a brood of Yodettes, are you saying that you’d leave them behind at the first sniff of danger? Also, while we’re here, what’s with the screwy syntax? Deepest mind in the galaxy, apparently, and you still express yourself like a day-tripper with a dog-eared phrase book. “I hope right you are.” Break me a fucking give.

I have sometimes found Lane a rather glib reviewer, but the turning point for me was his absolutely superb essay about P. G. Wodehouse from a year or two ago. It was one of my favorite things, a really excellent piece of writing. And now I read him with a more sympathetic eye...

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Three separate book-buying sprees

in the last week or so (one online, two bricks-and-mortar), a sign of end-of-semester stress as usually I am a library-user and rarely buy books in hardcover. But it means some good-quality light reading coming up. Just finished the one I was DYING to read (this book is going to be a big thing, I think): Martha O'Connor's The Bitch Posse. This is an amazing novel! I really, really loved it--seriously, it's like what you'd get if you asked Joyce Carol Oates to write the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Books... (I love JCO in general, and I'd say that Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang is one of her very, very best.) Anyway, The Bitch Posse fully lived up to my high expectations. Aside from everything else, I'm the exact right age for it (I'm about to go and put on Doolittle, I love every song on this album but "Hey" is my particular favorite, seriously takes me back to 1990....). Another thing I really liked was the rather delicately handled series of literary allusions--usually I sort of HATE literary allusions in page-turner-type fiction, they are often horribly pretentious--but this novel is really steeped in exactly the things I like, and glimpses of other literary texts come through in a great way that you wouldn't notice or bother with if you didn't like things like this, but that are really appealing if you do: Macbeth of course, and The Eumenides, but also the starling that's from Sentimental Journey by way of Mansfield Park and Goblin Market (I had a children's book version of this, illustrated by Ellen Raskin, that I loved when I was little) and my favorite "Who killed Cock Robin?"

There's an excellent "Backstory" by O'Connor up at M. J. Rose's blog about publishing; read it if you are having a disheartening time trying to find an agent and/or publish your first novel.

Why do playwrights

misguidedly think that plays are a good medium for imparting biography? Just got back from a pretty mediocre play about Charles Lindbergh at the Lucille Lortel; however dinner at Andavi on Christopher Street was excellent, not by any means cheap but really delicious and a very attractive space. Play: not recommended; restaurant: highly recommended.

Crippled Detectives

in the VLS, a great piece by Ed Park about a really demented and brilliant and lovely novel written by a little girl called Lee Tandy Schwartzman in the mid-70s and published in the magazine Stone Soup: "If ever a book deserved to be published in a facsimile autograph edition, Crippled Detectives is it. Reading Schwartzman's manuscript is like walking into a sheet of sheer concrete poetry. Punctuation has gone AWOL, and the lettering generally leaves as much breathing room as a sequence of DNA. 'This has got to be great,' William Rubel, Stone Soup's other founding editor, recalled thinking, upon seeing the MS. 'You can't even read it!'"

I wonder if there is any way to get hold of a copy?

Random semi-related observation: the out-of-print children's book that I MUST GET SOMEONE TO REPRINT (actually, I'm thinking about trying to track down the author, find out what's up with the rights and persuade Soft Skull to do it) is The Great Escape: Or the Sewer Story by Peter Lippman. (This book is a work of genius. It's about cute little alligators that people buy as pets, then get rid of when they grow unattractively large; the alligators congregate in the NYC sewers and hatch a plan to return to their natural habitat in the Florida swamps. However, this summary does not do justice to one of the funniest and most attractively illustrated books of my childhood.) Our childhood copy seems to have vanished, last seen in an apartment of my brothers' circa 1993.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005


My review of four books about genetic engineering and biological enhancement is up at the VLS. Three of the books are interesting but I wouldn't recommend them to everybody: one's too academic, one's too dogmatic and one's too goofy (actually, that last is Ramez Naam's More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement, and I enjoyed it a lot, it's a fun read if you like this kind of thing). But the one that's really an absolutely wonderful book (its only flaw is that Chorost includes WAY more than I wanted to know about his attempts to find a girlfriend using internet dating and what it's like to have sex with someone you don't know very well after getting a cochlear implant), and the one I think everyone should read, is Michael Chorost's Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human. Very highly recommended.

I am not the present-giving type,

I never remember anyone's birthday and really don't care about presents, but I really have received a particularly lovely haul from this year's students. The thing that prompted this post was this morning's gift of Ann Brashares's Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, a book I've been meaning to read but haven't got around to getting a hold of. But it was presented to me this morning and it is ABSOLUTELY WONDERFUL! In fact, so much so that when I finished reading it late afternoon, I went to the Bank Street Bookstore and got the two subsequent volumes, which I've now read as well (betraying my truly obsessive book-loving nature): The Second Summer of the Sisterhood and Girls in Pants: The Third Summer of the Sisterhood. It's a great series--Brashares has an extraordinary gift for characterization, and a very appealing and plain colloquial prose style--though the second and third books aren't quite as magical as the first, partly because they get more boy-girl-y. But Brashares is a genius at characterizing the way that when you're a teenager, knowing that you're behaving badly doesn't actually stop you from being absolutely horrible and destructive in other people's lives. These books are great.

Two trains of thought off this.

One, in my current novel (now in final stages of revision), I also have four girls in a boarding-school situation, only their relationship is rather more vexed than these girls seem to have. Thinking about this makes me feel the Brashares books are more wish-fulfillment-directed than I felt them to be as I read them. Perhaps this is my character flaw? (But Ursula Nordstrom's The Secret Language is the most brilliant novel of small-group girl relationships in a boarding-school situation, and there you see that it's rather tense and complicated.) And they get very boy-girl in a way I don't wholly approve of, that's my intellectual and moralizing side.

On a totally different note, I was struck by the author's comment in a reader interview following the second volume. Asked about why the books take place in the summer, Brashares comments, "Summer feels like a blank slate, a perfect place to begin a new story, whereas the school year feels bogged down by so many social and logistical concerns. Summer has a timeless feel, where the more particular rhythms of school fix you in time and space. I may change my mind about it, but so far I am pretty happy to write in eternal summer." I am struck by this because of something that joins my two novels to each other, the one published and the one finished. In many ways they hardly could be more different. But the strange thing they have in common is that they are both set in a two-month June-July period; the first in a June-July that feels structureless because the novel's protagonist isn't in school, the second in a June-July that is meaningful because it represents the protagonist's finishing-up of a significant school year. Just a strange thing... I don't feel there to be an "eternal summer," but that's because I'm a teacher and former student who feels those rhythms still.

And other presents? Well, I guess I'm boasting (and I really don't care about presents!), but the others include this BEAUTIFUL and decadent Jacques Torres chocolate assortment, very luxe and expensive so you would have to feel particularly depressed to buy it for yourself but I assure you it's worth it, and an excellent party gift, the chocolates are in fact too pretty to eat (especially a pink-and-white one with the logo LOVEBUGS) and that's part of the pleasure plus the irresistable Hermes-style box; and this, which made me feel intelligent without actually having read it yet. And most touching and funny of all, another student gave me a string of pearls with a very pretty gold clasp, with a card that thanked me for my pearls of wisdom! Quite adorable. I must stop giving so much advice, it is bad for my character.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Chronicle of Higher Ed reports on Foetry

A good piece by Thomas Bartlett at The Chronicle (not sure if you can get it without a subscription) about the whole Foetry thing:

When Mr. Cordle discovered that he was no longer anonymous, he says, it felt like 'a punch in the stomach.' He was sitting on the couch, feet propped up, working on his laptop. While visiting a poetry-related blog, he noticed something strange: his name, address, and home telephone number. He checked another site and there they were again. 'The cat is out of the bag,' one blog declared triumphantly.

Ms. Halme happened to be in the room at the time. Mr. Cordle thought briefly about keeping it from her, then realized that would be impossible. When he told her, he started crying. Then she started crying.

When the tears subsided the anger began. Ms. Halme worried that her poetry career would be over now that everyone knew she was married to the man behind Foetry. She also knew that her publication history would be put under a microscope. The irony is that she is a successful poet: Two of her books have been published, one of them by the University of Georgia Press, which Mr. Cordle has criticized so relentlessly. She was a winner of a contest he deems unfair. As it happens, however, she didn't know the judge the year she won. 'It's not rigged every year,' Mr. Cordle says.


light reading, Nora Roberts/J. D. Robb's Visions in Death; Michael Robotham's Suspect (both from the New Books shelf at my local public library branch, and displaying both the strengths and weaknesses of that place as a conduit for reading matter). The former is less pretentious, on the whole more satisfying, but also less interesting and individual (it's really quite good but not the best in the series). The latter has some really striking aspects but is MADDENINGLY annoying in other ways (I think I must take a break from thrillers narrated by psychologists, they are just not the men of action they seem to think9 themselves; rather, monstrous narcissists!); the present-tense voice is annoying (I say this having myself written a present-tense novel; so sue me); and I also HATE novels with privileged wealthy well-educated white male narrators who, oh, somehow decide NOT to tell the police about their perfectly good alibi and NOT to turn themselves in when there's a national manhunt for them and NOT.... you get the idea. However, despite my irritation at various points with this novel, I did in the end think it was quite good. I will also say that it reminded me in various ways of Denise Mina's novel Deception, which I found flawed (and not nearly as satisfactory as her fantastic Garnethill trilogy) but is certainly better than Robotham's.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

I'm pretty sure

you won't be able to follow this link unless you are a TLS subscriber, but the several-months-old really excellent review (well, there are some criticisms, but really it was very good) of my academic book is now up in their subscriber archive. I basically agree with Charlie Williams, who recently explained why he won't be blogging about reviews of his new novel Fags and Lager (not out yet in the US, sad to say, but if you're a US reader not willing to splurge on Amazon UK shipping, you can order Deadfolk, its predecessor and the most charming serial-killer novel you will ever read, from Amazon US; this is a Light Reading favorite). Here's what Charlie says:

I'm not the kind of guy who does that. If it's a good review, it looks like I'm blowing my own trumpet. If it's bad, I'm wallowing in self-pity, or trying to look all nonchalant but failing, and just looking sad and damaged.

My accommodation with this is that I link to the bad ones as well as the good ones, I would feel like a complete wretch if I just linked to the good. Also if I link to a really bad one (no, I'm not quite enough of a masochist to link AGAIN to that awful Bookmunch review) I will get a few e-mails of consolation. Anyway, I can't resist pasting this good academic one in, however it reflects on my character (the review is by Paddy Bullan):

The Augustan culture of politeness was a response to the pervasive breakdown in public trust that followed the disintegration of the Stuart monarchy and the bloodless revolution of 1688. As Swift recognizes, it was also a symptom of that breakdown. Jenny Davidson is the first literary historian to think seriously about how this national crisis of confidence went on to distort Hanoverian culture for the best part of another century. Hypocrisy and the Politics of Politeness is a model of its type - a timely, tightly argued and restlessly provocative monograph. It identifies an unexpected trend running through the vast early-modern literature of politeness, civility and manners. The book begins with a succession of Augustan writers - Swift, David Hume, Edmund Burke - who asserted the dependence of civil society on codes of manners. Occasionally, a hidden bias within their arguments for civility betrayed them into making explicit defences of hypocrisy - usually elaborations on La Rochefoucauld's well-known maxim that "hypocrisy is a tribute that vice pays to virtue". Davidson's careful examination of these instances suggests that ruling-class Hanoverians secured their own privilege of inconsistency by excluding certain groups, particularly women and servants, from the right to doubleness. Everywhere she discovers fastidious calculations about what sort of person should be admitted within the gift of politeness.

The book itself is inordinately expensive, so I can't say I recommend buying it, but you can get it from a university library or else take a peek inside using Google Print.

Another novel

after a long day of school stuff (both frivolous and substantive), Robert Crais's latest, The Forgotten Man. Crais is a very good writer, so much better than the average that I feel like a heel complaining about this book. But it's a bit of a mess, bits and pieces all over the place and not all coming together. I am a sucker for the burnt-out female cop characters, so I wanted more of the Starkey love plot thing (this character's from Demolition Angel, which I really loved)--maybe this hook-up is going to happen in the next one? But I imagine other different readers would want completely different things from the book, and it never really stayed on a single track that made sense. It's the difficulty, I guess, of writing a multi-voice book; not sure the downside is worth the conjectural payoff. (There was an interesting discussion of this novel in February at Sarah Weinman's.)

(Also, Crais and Cole are sort of the twins of Connelly and Bosch in the same way that I always secretly mix up Peter Robinson's Banks and Reginald Hill's Pascoe. Not to blame the authors, I'm sure they're tapping into the zeitgeist, but I do in the end most like the writers who are insane one-offs.)

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Trashy novels

for the end of the semester; hit the public library this afternoon (before I'd finished grading, a dangerous move); have now finished grading, read two books and am about to go to bed. The first (this afternoon, while fending off final grading work) was Murder Plays House, one of the cringe-makingly-named "Mommy Track" mysteries by Ayelet Waldman of Bad Mother fame (I was addicted to that blog). I really like her first-person voice of the blog, wasn't that impressed with the first mysteries in the series but feel that the voice has come into better focus for these more recent ones. Though there's no doubt it's now impossible to read her novels without looking for crazed autobiographical revelations. Anyway, this one was really very good, if you like the agenda-driven kind of mystery (this one's about eating disorders and the pro-ana website world). And the second light reading book was much more shamefully trashy, I felt like bowing down to my twelve-year-old self: Dragonsblood (by Todd McCaffrey, son of Anne). I really read these books now out of loyalty. The early ones were so good and made such an impression on me that I will put up with weak recent ones solely out of nostalgia. This one isn't bad in itself, just wholly lacking in characterization,which is a great virtue of the original series (I still say that Dragonsinger is one of the top-ten young-adult fantasy novels of all time, a book well worth reading even if you don't think you like that category; it is really an excellent novel and I'm sure I've read it, oh, well let's just say more like fifteen than ten times, and more than a few of those in adult life too).

Thursday, May 12, 2005

At this time of the school year

(it's strange, it's not really that I'm working harder than I always do, just that I'm worn out from accumulated academic-year stress) I find that almost all of my light reading is RE-reading; if I had an infinite supply of perfect books, I expect I'd read new stuff, but as it is I fall back on old favorites like Dorothy Dunnett's DOLLY & THE NANNY BIRD. Since I was a kid I have always liked this Dunnett series of mysteries; have never read the historical ones, though, despite several friends' obsessive fandom. Might track them down and see what I think now; in general, I'm not in favor of grand-scale historical novels, though as a teenager I had a soft spot for Anya Seton's Green Darkness and Katherine. Actually, what am I saying? I love historical novels (these ones are exceptional, I am glad to see they are still selling really well on Amazon--in fact, the second seems to be at Amazon Books #768, which is rather extraordinary given that it was first published in 1954)! I even did an orals topic on historical novels when I was in grad school--I think the authors were Robert Graves, Anthony Burgess, John Fowles, Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, but I may be misremembering). Hmmm....

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

My beloved grandmother

died yesterday at the Whittington Hospital in North London. She was 88. A few years ago I sort of coaxed her into writing some memoirs; I'd send her questions and she'd answer them and I typed the pages up for her afterwards. I'd had some idea beforehand of making a little book for other people in the family, but of course as soon as I read what she'd written--it was as scathing and unsentimental as she always was in conversation--I realized it was completely unsuitable! But I've just been rereading it and thinking about her and thought I'd post a little taste of it, just for the flavor. This is her description of her sister (Oliver and Phil are the brothers):

Margaret: where to start? We never really got on. I think her nose was put out of joint by my birth, eight years after hers. She and Oliver were very naughty as children though they had a nurse-governess for the three. She was difficult when she was growing up and did no good at Sidcot School (co-ed). As I remember her she was always lounging about in men’s trousers smoking in the holidays. She was very sharp and unkind, jealous and trouble-making. Not a good start. When she left school she trained as a potter at Oxshot in Surrey. After this she was sent to psychoanalysis, not that it did much good. I don’t know why she was sent. This sums up the family. Nobody knew what the others really thought about each other and their friends.

Margaret spent her years up to the war being a potter and embroidering things: underwear, bedspreads, etc. She had a horrid little dog called Simon. When the war came and she had to be called up she joined the Friends Voluntary Service (Quakers) and was sent to India. All this after I was married. What she did there I don’t know but she eventually met George Stewart (she really wanted some other chap) and sent a cable to say she was marrying him. This in April or May 1945. Consternation with mother and Phil raging about. As she had tried any amount of chaps and they had cooled off this seemed good to me. After all she would have only come home otherwise and been at Sidcot again rubbing them up the wrong way.

She was a most excellent person, kind and a good listener and with an excellent sense of humor. I will miss her.

On Sunday evening

I caught the first half of the faculty selections at the last night of the Columbia University Film Festival 2005. The films I saw were staggeringly good--really beautiful, often funny, very moving--I especially liked Ben Hayflick's Pedalfoot (a hilarious and sad short film about a little boy's piano recital) and Sameh Zoabi's Be Quiet (a painful and sweet visually striking and brilliantly acted little film about a Palestinian father and son trying to drive home from a family funeral); the visual beauty of Tala Hadid's Your Dark Hair Ihsan was also amazing. I must start watching more films, I read too many books (as several people have recently told me).

Monday, May 09, 2005

Picked up earlier this afternoon

a used paperback copy of a particular favorite novel of mine, Chaim Potok's The Promise; just finished rereading it, it is the most wonderful and ethically powerful novel you will ever read. Very, very good stuff. One of the more amazing episodes of my life at Columbia has been getting to know a very distinguished Talmud scholar and Holocaust survivor who lives in my building and among other things realizing that he is one of the models for Reuven Malter's father in these books (he's cited in the acknowledgments). This man's memoir is an outrageously compelling book, one of the more striking things I've read: The Book and the Sword: A Life of Learning in the Shadow of Destruction, by David Weiss Halivni. Aside from its other merits, it offers a kind of counter to Primo Levi's despair.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

You can hardly call it light reading

but I just finished Drama City, the latest from George Pelecanos. I love his books. Not much more to be said. He's not a really stylish prose writer, but he has this gift for character and story-telling that's pretty much unbeatable (well, it's him and Richard Price.) It rings true for me with how life is. I mean, fortunately my existential decisions do not involve breaking the law, but Pelecanos is very, very good on the way that your true self and your habits may take you into very unlucky territory even when you've resolved to behave well. Also see Adrian LeBlanc's Random Family if you want more context (especially female-oriented) for this kind of life decision-making.

Friday, May 06, 2005

There is a delightfully negative review

of Ian McEwan's new novel by John Banville in The New York Review of Books. (NB: It is a scandal that a print subscription to the NYRB doesn't automatically give you electronic access. So no on-line version.) I am fully persuaded--I decided some time ago that I would give
Saturday a miss, I liked Enduring Love but Amsterdam was pretty weak and Atonement massively overrated. In sum, McEwan just isn't my kind of novelist. Not John Banville's, either:

It happens occasionally that a novelist will lose his sense of artistic proportion, especially when he has done a great deal of research and preparation. I have read all those books, he thinks, I have made all these notes, so how can I possibly go wrong? Or he devises a program, a manifesto, which he believes will carry him free above the demands of mere art--no deskbound scribbler he, no dabbler in dreams, but a man of action, a match for any scientist or soldier. He sets to work, and immediately matters start to go wrong--the thing will not flow, the characters are mulishly stubborn, even the names are not right--but yet he persists, mistaking the frustrations of an unworkable endeavor for the agonies attendant upon the fashioning of a masterpiece. But no immensity of labor will bring to successful birth a novel that was misconceived in the first place.

Something of the kind seems to have happened here. Saturday is a dismayingly bad book. The numerous set pieces---brain operations, squash game, the encounters with Baxter, etc.--are hinged together with the subtlety of a child's Erector Set. The characters too, for all the nuzzling and cuddling and punching and manhandling in which they are made to indulge, drift in their separate spheres, together but never touching, like the dim stars of a lost galaxy. The politics of the book is banal, of the sort that is to be heard at any middle-class Saturday-night dinner party, before the talk moves on to property prices and recipes for fish stew. There are good things here, for instance the scene when Perowne visits his senile mother in an old-folks' home, in which the writing is genuinely affecting in its simplicity and empathetic force. Overall, however, Saturday has the feel of a neoliberal polemic gone badly wrong; if Tony Blair--who makes a fleeting personal appearance in the book, ozozing insincerity--were to appoint a committee to produce a 'novel for our time,' the result would surely be something like this.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

The gods of light reading

brought to my work mailbox this morning Peter Temple's Bad Debts, the first Jack Irish novel. Anyone who's been reading this blog for a little while knows that I love, love, love these books. Everything about them is exactly what I like (real estate, horse-racing, Australian lingo and crypic sports fare), but of course the real good thing is the language. So many places in these books make me wish I was teaching a writing class and could bring in a given paragraph RIGHT NOW as example. (The other thing they make me think, another important test, is that I should be writing a first-person inadvertent-detective series myself. I have thought about this many times and decided against it, for sensible reasons. But these books are so good it makes me think again. I want to write like this!) Temple is master of several things that I particularly value, including expert knowledge/terminology and the HYPHEN. Here's a good paragraph, at the very end of the very funny and dry first chapter (which is a sort of tour de force, and should be anthologized--I hope he slaved over this chapter for ages, otherwise we live in an unjust world):

The next day, I went to Sydney to talk to a possible witness to a near-fatal dispute in the carpark of the Melton shopping centre. It was supposed to be a six-hour quickie. It took two days, and a man hit me on the uper left arm with a full swing of a bseball bat. It was an aluminium baseball bat made in Japan. This would never have happened in the old days. He would have hit me with a Stewart Surridge cricket bat with black insulation tape around the middle. Except in the old days I didn't do this kind of work.

Everything here is worth reading. This book is fantastic, as is the whole series. But there is also (curiously) a lesson about why authors shouldn't worry about royalties. Jack has this thing about wood-working, he has apprenticed himself to a joiner, and the craft of it runs through all the books. But here's Jack mulling over his boss Charlie's Bank, a stock of insanely high-quality timber (he's about to use the boards to make furniture for a random company):

Did an emerging mining company deserve a table made from unobtainable timber air-dried for at least fifty years? Wouldn't some lesser, wetter timber do? The miners wouldn't notice. I'd once asked Charlie the same question about a bureau he was making for a hotel owner with drug connections. 'This arschloch I'm not making it for,' he said. 'He's just the first owner. I'm making it for all the owners.'

I have one complaint about plausibility in this one--Jack is too ready to fall for the blandishments of a corrupt government minister. (But perhaps you only see this through the lens of the later books, and this is his original sin? Lee Child has solved this problem by having the earliest installment of the Jack Reacher books come late in his writing series.) But Temple's books are ridiculously good. I am calling for the whole series to be published in the US ASAP....

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Down for the count

with a wretched cold, started a week ago as hay fever then morphed into evil bronchitis-plus. Lost precious work time. Breathed germs on various people. Still feel sick. Couldn't read anything but the lightest of light reading: two mysteries by Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night (which I seriously must have read so many times before that I've practically memorized the opening pages, and which gave me my first major glimpse at age 11 or 12 into the academic life I wanted to have when I grew up) and sequel Busman's Honeymoon; and Diana Wynne Jones, Dark Lord of Derkholm and Year of the Griffin, also both already excessively re-read. But this brings me to my main point: why don't more "literary" novels have sequels? Don't you often want another book to take on the same characters? Yes, of course there is something that comes from nineteenth-century realism and prestige and everything that says fancy books should be a self-enclosed universe. But I would love to read a sequel to Kavalier & Clay or The Time of Our Singing.

Weird Shakespeare reference

in a very calm Science Times article about Chimeras:

A much greater chance of creating a viable chimeric creature would come from injecting human embryonic stem cells into a monkey or ape. For this reason the academy committee has firmly ruled out such experiments as unethical. But to continue a little on the path of fantasy, humans are still very similar to chimpanzees, their closest surviving cousins, and an embryo constructed of cells from each may be viable enough to be born.

This chimerical creature would probably not be as enjoyable as the chimeras of mythology but more of a problem human - a Caliban-like personage with bad manners and difficult habits.