Wednesday, November 30, 2005

I think this appeared a few weeks ago

but I've only belatedly come across it: a very nice (though slightly mortifying--basically, I read it thinking "God, did I really say that?") profile of me in the Columbia Record. The journalist who wrote it was great, we had a really funny long phone conversation that was much more enjoyable than I expected.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

If you haven't been reading

the Ten Words Literary Supplement, I highly recommend it (and then you can try it at home, too--seriously, I have found myself thinking in ten-word units constantly, it is quite addictive). Start at bottom, scroll back up for the best results.

A nice interview

at Guernica with the excellent Thea Gilmore. (Thanks to Lux Lotus for the link.)

I got the original Thea Gilmore recommendation a while ago from some Neil Gaiman-related thing (he's got a good web presence as an arbiter of taste), and am basically completely addicted to her albums: I listen to Avalanche (and I love every song on this album, but "Razor Valentine" is the best thing since, ah, sliced bread or whatever--anyway, there's no good comparison, but it's on my short list with Big Star's "Give Me Another Chance", "Hope" from the Descendents' Milo Goes to College and Camper Van Beethoven's "One of These Days" as best love songs ever) and Rules for Jokers CONSTANTLY, and have her others in the shopping cart for near-future purchase. Check these albums out if you haven't already, they are particularly lovely and re-listenable-to. Like the lovechild of Elvis Costello and Gillian Welch, only not at all country: just very good stuff.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

It was Friday morning

and though I am incredibly anti-shopping (I really, really hate shopping, and though I have a generally equable and pleasant temperament there is nothing so likely to plunge me into foul-tempered furious misanthropy as a shopping mall--fortunately I don't ever have to set in foot in one any more, but I still think with chagrin of how I behaved to my poor mother when I was a teenager in such circumstances) I guess I succumbed momentarily to the flood of post-Thanksgiving consumerism. I was killing time in the Barnes &Noble at Lincoln Center--it was freezing outside--and I whisked through the ground-floor new books area and basically was on the verge of spending a TON of money until common sense got the better of me. Instead of grabbing armsful of books and (a) pouring money into corporate coffers (b) racking up credit card debt (c) inconveniencing myself with a huge bag of books I would have to carry around the whole rest of the weekend and then back from NY to Cambridge (seriously, it's NEITHER the nice independent bookstore NOR the super-convenient Amazon doorstep thing--and yes, I know B&N is regarded as more politically correct than Amazon, but what can you do...), I took out a piece of paper and wrote down everything I really, really wanted right then & there. And I've just looked them all up in the university library catalog, and out of thirteen books, eight are available in the stacks and I have recalled the other five. (I do think that new/newish books being checked out can be used as an indicator of popularity, so long as you allow for the one-off check-out phenomenon. It also tilts kind of highbrow, b/c of the university thing.) And unfortunately the library's closed early today b/c of the evil holiday weekend thing but I can go tomorrow and get them all. It is no wonder I am feeling smug and self-congratulatory, is it very annoying?

Rochester #2

Anthony Lane has a very funny review of The Libertine (aka the Rochester biopic) in the latest issue of the New Yorker. Unfortunately it seems clear that this is a movie to be avoided at all costs:

What matters about Rochester is that, unlike the majority of sex addicts, he never allowed his addiction to shrink him into a bore. Instead, his curiosity swelled to encompass the rest of the population, whom he cheerfully imagined-with a scabrous presumption not heard since the Rome of Juvenal-to be every bit as addicted as he. Hence 'A Ramble in St. James's Park,' with its democratic overview of lust:

Car-men, divines, great lords, and tailors,
'Prentices, pimps, poets, and jailers,
Footmen, fine fops do here arrive,
And here promiscuously they swive.

That is one of the quieter moments in the poem. Other passages stream past in which the only vaguely respectable noun is 'sluice.' The result is not just polluted but also crisp and funny, although you would never know that from the film, in which Depp recites a few lines in a morose incantation and, wandering through the park in a mist, finds himself besieged by visions of writhing orgiasts. They resemble one of the more unfortunate dream sequences from an old Ken Russell picture, whereas the actual Rochester was laying out, with unblinking eyes, the map of a well-known world. As for the mist, it never clears; most of 'The Libertine' unfurls in a soup of brown light. It cannot be smog, because Rochester predated the industrial revolution, so I conclude that the director, who plainly fancies himself a symbolist, is bent on moral miasma. One gets the point, but again it muddies the clarity and verve with which Rochester confronted his times.

An interesting article

defining urban fantasy, a genre (or perhaps mode is a more useful term) I've long been obsessed with. (Link via Miss Snark. And if you are a writer in the early stages of your career and have not yet read her blog, do check it out--the archives are a mine of useful information about how to write the best book possible, secure an agent to represent you, etc. etc.)

(Talking of urban fantasy, I read Kelley Armstrong's Stolen last night. It was very disappointing. I expect I will continue to read her books, she's an extremely good writer as these things go--smart, funny, likeable first-person voices etc.--and it's a type of book I really enjoy but she lost me here with the, you know, secret compound run by the megalomaniac billionnaire who was kidnapping Supernatural Creatures and subjecting them to Nazi-doctor-type experiments to learn their secrets and turn himself into some sort of super-powered creature. Also all the witch and demon stuff is sillier than the werewolves by themselves. It all turns into a goofy and wildly implausible prison-break story. Not so good.)

Saturday, November 26, 2005

A hodgepodge

of more or less inappropriate holiday entertainment:

1. On Friday I saw Syriana, which I highly recommend. The first hour and ten minutes or so are fabulously good--I was sitting there (on the edge of a stair, very uncomfortable--they had oversold and the Lincoln Square theater was totally packed) and just thinking "God, this is the perfect movie, why aren't all movies exactly like this?" I grew more ambivalent, though, by about two-thirds of the way through. The pace fails to pick up, and I felt it could have been about 30 minutes shorter or else a LOT longer--something about the proportions seemed off. (I would have cut the Matt Damon story-line: it was the least imaginative and most hackneyed and sentimental and predictable, and cutting it would have solved some structural problems.) And maybe most problematically, there's something really voyeuristic about turning this global geopolitical stuff into glossy Hollywood entertainment. (I think this was more of a problem with Traffic, though.) But seriously, it's a great flick. And NB: Jon Lee Anderson has a cameo, he's the guy sitting on the bench next to Matt Damon who asks him why he's waiting to see the Amir.

2. I found an amazing stash of slightly mildewy paperback crime novels in the cupboard of the house I was staying in on Thursday, and pillaged them. First I read the forgettable Mr. Campion's Farthing--it says Margery Allingham on the cover, but it's really one of those "she had worked out the story and then she died and then her husband and faithful collaborator wrote it in her voice" kinds of thing. I didn't have high hopes, but it was still disappointing: I have a kind of fascination with her books, there is something ridiculously compelling about them although they are very odd and not particularly good crime novels. Much more satisfying was John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos, which was just as good as I remembered it being. (I was reminded of Wyndham recently by these various discussions of the recent top twenty geek novels list at the Guardian.)

The great reading disappointment was on the train down to New Jersey on Thursday morning: for ages I'd been noticing Neil Gaiman singling out Thorne Smith as one of his favorite writers, and especially as an inspiration for Anansi Boys, which I loved. So I finally got a stack of them from the library and opened up Topper on the train and was pretty sad to realize about fifty pages in that it's really not my kind of thing at all. And unfortunately that and the sequel were what I'd brought to read. I will try some of this others, though. And fortunately I had the previous week's New Yorker, which comes so late in the week to my Cambridge mailing address that it painfully rubs in the fact that I'm living in the cultural provinces (joke, joke; sorry...). It was a good issue, and in particular there was a really stunning and incredibly depressing must-read essay by Laura Secor about the collapse of the reform movement in Iran; here's the full essay, and here's a Q&A at the magazine's website with Secor. Just in case you weren't already feeling depressed enough about the state of the world, this one will really make you ready to lay your head down and cry in a mixture of guilt and horror. Read it and go and see Syriana and you will really be getting yourself into the holiday spirit....

Wednesday, November 23, 2005


a George Orwell quotation from Terry Teachout (I love, love, love Orwell, that voice in the essays is ridiculously perfect, but clearly I have some stronger identification as well):

It is now 16 years since my first book was published, & abt 21 years since I started publishing articles in the magazines. Throughout that time there has literally been not one day in which I did not feel that I was idling, that I was behind with the current job, & that my total output was miserably small. Even at the periods when I was working 10 hours a day on a book, or turning out 4 or 5 articles a week, I have never been able to get away from this neurotic feeling, that I was wasting time. I can never get any sense of achievement out of the work that is actually in progress, because it always goes slower than I intend, & in any case I feel that a book or even an article does not exist until it is finished. But as soon as a book is finished, I begin, actually from the next day, worrying that the next one is not begun, & am haunted with the fear that there will never be a next one—that my impulse is exhausted for good & all. If I look back & count up the actual amount that I have written, then I see that my output has been respectable: but this does not reassure me, because it simply gives me the feeling that I once had an industriousness & a fertility which I have now lost.

Trashy novels

One day I am going to write a short and funny but endlessly expandable taxonomy of trashy novels, in the spirit of showing why they are such a good thing and exploring the individual charms of each, ah, phylum or whatever (you know, urban fantasy; fantasy with dragons; fantasy with telepathy; sex-orgy fantasy [this isn't my favorite, the sex is usually incredibly cheesy]; historical fantasy). (It would be restricted to mass-market paperbacks. The day I write a novel that appears in mass-market paperback will be the day that my most cherished ambition in life is realized.)

But for now I will just say that the latest excellently trashy novel I've read is Haunted by Kelley Armstrong. It's not as good as the first of hers I got, Bitten; but then I have often held forth (though possibly not here on the blog?) on why I think it is that when it comes to a certain kind of urban fantasy werewolves (well, animal shapeshifters more generally) are more immediately appealing than vampires, angels, demons, witches, sorcerors et al. (I think there are aesthetic reasons but perhaps it's just a matter of personal taste, I have been obsessed since childhood with Jane Goodall, Franz de Waal, animal behavior and ethology and such. And I love animals. And I like the way werewolf novels tend to have to think about animal and human behavior, as opposed to just making it all up as many of the others do.)

Anyway, the best thing about this one is that it's got an excellent first-person female narrator, tough and funny and highly personable, who goes around beating everyone up. It's implausible even beyond the whole angel-demon-witch apparatus, but in a good way. Very enjoyable.

Monday, November 21, 2005


Oh, and though I always feel sheepish about this kind of linking, I got a really great review (in MLQ, but it's not available online) of Hypocrisy and the Politics of Politeness. It's by a German eighteenth-century scholar named Vera Nuenning; she makes a few thoughtful criticisms, but on the whole is full of praise, so I'm happy (she calls it "a masterly account of the development of the ideal of politeness and its relation to hypocrisy and dissimulation" and suggests that it "sheds light on a central feature of eighteenth-century culture and should be read by everybody interested in the period"). NB My book came out more than a year ago, but academic journals often take quite a long time to review things--in fact, this is relatively quick--you will often see reviews for books published years earlier. So I'm really pleased about this one.

Antony on singers

in a very good interview with John Robinson at the Guardian. Here's Antony's website. (Thanks to ReadySteadyBook for the link.)

If you're curious, here's my rather tongue-tied description of the amazing Town Hall concert by Antony and the Johnsons this summer; and if you don't have their albums already, you are missing out on one of those insanely perfect things in the world that make everything good, click here and here for Amazon-y details.

Miscellaneous light reading

The first of these was the least memorable: Nightcrawlers: A Nameless Detective Novel by Bill Pronzini. I could see the shreds of former glory, I suppose, but never having read any of the earlier books (the series began in 1971, and the publicity material boldly proclaims it "the newest chapter in today's longest-running P.I. series") this one seemed pretty thin. I won't avoid the earlier ones, but I don't think I'll seek them out, either. (I know it's sacrilege to say this, but I always had that experience with recent Ed McBain novels too; if you didn't know the early ones, the later ones were much less likely to draw you in.)

To cheer myself up and shake the general November malaise I realized on Friday afternoon that there was only one thing to do, and so I went and did it: bought myself a copy (previously I've only had it from the library) of Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. I reread it on Friday night and it was absolutely delightful, just as before. Funniest novel I think I've ever read. Also it has a happy ending, which is nice.

I also bought Septimus Heap, Book One: Magyk by Angie Sage, as a present for a twelve-year-old girl I don't know personally but that a family member needed a gift for: I read it myself over the weekend (yes, I know it's bad etiquette to read the present before giving it, but I knew I was going to even as I was buying it, isn't that awful? I was very careful not to bend the pages or mess up the gold sticker on the front), and fear it may be a bit young for her, but it's not bad, I'm a sucker for books like this (Harry Potter rip-off, sort of, but quite charming and likeable in its own right: the second half is better than the first, which is unusual, and I got the feeling that Sage was warming up to do some pretty good stuff in the next installment). What I really wanted to get was Justine's fantastic book Magic or Madness, which would have been perfect, but unfortunately it wasn't in stock in either of the bookstores I tried & I needed to have the present in hand for Thursday. Ah well. There will be a next time, and I will get it for her then.

And now I've just finished a really amazing novel, The Right Madness by James Crumley. Why have I never read Crumley before?!? This must be remedied at once. It's criminal. I will get all his books from the library and read them in a greedy fit. To a much lesser extent this shares the Pronzini effect (it's a late installment in what must surely have been a truly spectacular series, and the plot's pretty all-over-the-place) but it is still fabulously good, I really loved it: some of the darkest noir I've read in a while. Makes me want to go and live in Montana and shoot people with guns. Great stuff, seriously.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Up at the Village Voice

is my review of The Trouble With Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine by Paul Collins. I thought it was excellent (give me this kind of founding-father book over David McCullough's any day); it would make a good holiday present for someone who likes reading smart funny non-fiction with a historical bent. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 18, 2005

A funny interview

with Johnny Depp about John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Usually I avoid costume dramas like the plague, but this one I think I must see. (Thanks to Bookslut for the link.)

I love Rochester's poems, and I also love teaching them: they are genuinely shocking in their obscenity and their dark humor, so it's the best possible way of making people realize that 1660-1800 is the single most exciting period of British literature. (All right, I'm joking, sort of,but I really do believe that, and it is my mission in life to convert a few others to my point of view.)

Is there better dirty poetry in English than Rochester's? I think not. I use his "Satire on Charles II" on the first day of my Restoration and eighteenth-century drama course (here's a link), and I've taught more of his poems in a seminar on satire. A Ramble in St. James's Park is one of my favorites, but please don't click on the link if you're squeamish; The Imperfect Enjoyment is rather more cheerful but still pretty extreme.

(Buy Rochester's poems here. Seriously, they're moving and brilliant and hilarious as well as dirty. If you don't know them already, this collection's well worth a look.)

Thursday, November 17, 2005


Something I read recently, I can't remember what, reminded me of marmosets and my favorite poem with the word marmoset in it. (I must confess that it might have been an article about Paris Hilton being attacked by her pet kinkajou--yes, I know that a kinkajou and a marmoset have little in common, but whenever I read about exotic pets I get simultaneously disapproving and covetous--I would never have one--but I did learn some interesting facts about what it would take to have a kinkajou as a pet--12' x 12' x 6 would seem to do it, plus a heat source--and also that "Kinkajous are important pollinators - an ecological role which is filled by no other carnivore. Kinkajous' tongues are long (up to 6 inches or 20 cm) and flexible, and can be used to extract nectar from flowers. As the Kinkajou feeds, pollen adheres to its face and is subsequently deposited on other plants as the animal moves from blossom to blossom in the jungle canopy" [and the picture of the tongue is really amazing]).

Anyway, here's the Lovelace poem:, which isn't really about marmosets after all:


I cannot tell, who loves the skeleton
Of a poor marmoset; nought but boan, boan;
Give me a nakednesse, with her cloath's on.


Such, whose white-sattin upper coat of skin,
Cut upon velvet rich incarnadin,
Has yet a body (and of flesh) within.


Sure, it is meant good husbandry in men,
Who do incorporate with aery leane,
T' repair their sides, and get their ribb agen.


Hard hap unto that huntsman, that decrees
Fat joys for all his swet, when as he sees,
After his 'say, nought but his keepers fees.


Then, Love, I beg, when next thou tak'st thy bow,
Thy angry shafts, and dost heart-chasing go,
Passe RASCALL DEARE, strike me the largest doe.

Nice, eh?

The first-person voice in fiction

is something I'm basically obsessed with, and for this reason alone I would have found Curtis Sittenfeld's sly novel Prep an absorbing read: the narrator is often horrifying in her self-absorption and her failures of humanity, but the satisfaction of the voice means that all this is brought forth in a way that critiques as well as simply reproducing the ethical failings of adolescence. I am really still not sure what I think about this novel, except that it's very good indeed. (Here's a whole collection of reviews, but I can't say the ones I looked at were particularly illuminating: the book seems to have been widely misunderstood.)

A few thoughts, then. I found the first hundred or so pages incredibly depressing: they're impressively well-written but so bleak that I could hardly stand to read on. A Bob Dylan song makes a brief appearance (the narrator's wearing an old t-shirt of her father's with a Dylan quote on it, and one of the other students plays her an album) but Lee Fiora is astonishingly ignorant of and uninterested in everything to do with culture. She is a bad student in the deepest sense, despite the intelligence manifested in her compulsive observation of her peers and the rules that govern the community in which they live (this book has an Erving Goffman-like interest in the relationships between individuals in medium-sized groups). I was heartened at the beginning of chapter four (the start of Lee's sophomore year) by the appearance of a quotation from Kafka on the blackboard ("Literature is an ax for the frozen sea within us"), but it was also around this point that I realized the book was doing something quite different than I had been led to expect.

This is all very rambling and unformed, but the main thing I want to say is that it's bizarre so many reviewers wanted to conflate Sittenfeld with her main character. The really interesting and great thing about the book is that Sittenfeld has pulled off one of the neatest tricks a novelist can get away with. This novel looks and feels like a memoir; it's got a persuasive (partly because she's not very appealing) narrator, a convincing texture and level of detail, an excellent first-person voice, a slightly over-long but on the whole perfectly effective looking-back structure (as we get further into the book, there's more mixing-in of the present-time Lee's understanding with her younger self's). But the genius of the book is that it could not have been written by the person that we get to know as Lee; the novelist's hand is visible, in the sense that the book makes an argument about education that Lee is still even at the end of the book incapable of understanding. She has come to realize many more things about herself and her relationships with family and friends and boyfriends, in other words, but she doesn't yet understand (and is probably incapable of understanding) the moral of Sittenfeld's story about education and what happens when education fails. In this sense it's extremely reminiscent of Great Expectations, though I can't say I heard any specific allusions.

I still haven't really explained what I think, and I'm not sure I'll be able to. But let me take a biographical tack, though I think it could potentially be explained better by looking closely at passages of the novel. Sittenfeld herself is a teacher, and I randomly learned recently that at least one of her parents is a teacher as well. And reading this book as a teacher (well, that's probably where the reviewers lost the edge), and also as the child of a teacher (moreover, the child of a teacher who went to a private school--not a boarding school, but all the same--on scholarship) I see something unexpected--something that verges on the satirical--being said here about Lee's failure to learn. The biggest difference between Lee and Sittenfeld that we can really know about concerns their background, their cultural capital. Lee's father is the mattress king in South Bend, Indiana; we don't learn in the novel what Lee does when she grows up, though we know she does graduate work and has several different jobs, but it is impossible to imagine her as a teacher (and some of the saddest scenes in the book are the ones describing Lee's interactions with the young English teacher Ms. Moran). Being a middle-class student at a school chiefly populated with very wealthy students is a completely different matter depending on whether one's parents are mattress entrepreneurs or teachers, needless to say. Sittenfeld has deprived Lee of all of the school-related advantages that she herself surely possessed, leaving her only the keen observational skills and the strong personality (though both are hidden from all of Lee's teachers and many of her peers as well).

There are a number of different things that Lee fails to learn at Ault, and some other lessons that she learns in painfully effective ways, but the worst thing (or do I just think this is the worst because I care so much about education myself?) is that she fails to understand that being a student is an ethical calling as well as simply a stage of life. Even the rather off-putting children of privilege around her understand this in a way she doesn't.

(Oh, and it turns out that Sittenfeld's novel has more in common than just the boarding-school setting with Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. If you're only going to read one, read the Ishiguro, though it's hardly fair to compare this first-time novelist with a major international writer at the top of his game. But it's well worth reading both; in fact I would think it could be extremely interesting to teach them next to each other in a class on contemporary fiction. And you could put The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in there too....)

Last night

I went to see my colleague Andy Delbanco read from his new book Melville :His World and Work, and it was really excellent: I can't wait to read it. I love biographies of writers, though I don't seem to have been reading many of them this past year or so. The book's been getting fantastic reviews all over the place, including a very favorable and thoughtful piece by Frederick Crews in the New York Review of Books (subscription only) which includes some useful discussion of Delbanco's work on Melville in relation to the field of American Studies. (In short, Crews calls it "an eclectic, humane, historically grounded tribute to Melville's best achievements and a moving account of the troubles that closed in on him" that "quietly but knowingly goes against the academic grain.") And I gather we are to expect an interview soon with Robert Birnbaum; I expect I'll link when it's up.

Hearing Andy talk about Melville acutely reminded me of my experience of reading Moby Dick the summer after my first year of grad school. (I think I already posted about this recently, so apologies for the repetition.) I had always vaguely lumped it with Conrad's sea stories, which I don't really like at all, and imagined it must be a rather off-putting tome; but a year at Yale had given me some vague shame at not having read it and I thought I might as well read it over the summer when I wasn't doing coursework. Imagine my shock when I started reading and discovered that it was THE MOST AMAZING BOOK IN THE WORLD. It made me really, really angry that nobody had told me this before--it's a book that comes with a sort of "it's not enjoyable, but it's good for you" horrible medicinal flavor, and yet that is so incredibly unfair; it is the craziest and most demented and most enjoyable novel imaginable, really. I loved all the whaling stuff, that's exactly my kind of thing (expert knowledge!), but I had seriously had no idea how much of Shakespeare there was in it (I love Shakespeare) and how much of Melville there is in Pynchon and . . . you get the idea. I fell in love with it, in short, just as I had with Paradise Lost earlier that year. And I bemoaned the state of affairs that had let me get an excellent education with a strong emphasis on literature without anyone having ever suggested that I might like Milton or Melville.

I think we're due for a massive Melville revival. Carrie's been reading Delbanco in preparation for tackling Moby Dick, and Laura Lippman's talking about rereading Moby Dick. Good stuff.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Good interview with Mary Gaitskill

at Nerve. A few highlights:

Has time softened your view of the film adaptation of Secretary?

I haven't thought about it. My reaction to it, when I saw the rough cut, I thought it was the stupidest thing I'd ever seen. But I just thought, well, whatever. I felt sorry for Shainberg [the director]. I didn't feel sorry for myself. I thought, the poor son of a bitch went through so much trouble, he's never going to find a distributor, that's really sad. But then there became this whole thing with money. I didn't get paid when I was supposed to, and I was concerned that they were going to cheat me, and a lawyer told me they very well could. That was what upset me. I didn't give a fuck about anything else. I just thought, if I don't get my money, I'm going to have to kill somebody.

So I didn't see it for a long time. I got paid, and as far as I was concerned that was the end of the story. Then my sister came to visit, and she wanted to see it. It had been out for some months at that point, and we went to the theatre, and I enjoyed it! Its not what I would have done but it's kind of sweet. My actual character in the story, Debby, she would have loved it. It was too cute and ham-fisted, too 'wanting to create a positive image.' It wanted to make people feel good about themselves. It was so odd, because I read an interview with the screenwriter, who was sort of blathering about political correctness and how awful it was - well, the movie is the epitome of political correctness! It was a positive statement about people who are into S&M, and those who don't understand. Which I find icky. But bottom line, it's great to have a movie of your work no matter what; it's a no-lose situation.

Have you ever read what Nabokov said, that Chekhov wrote sad stories for humorous people, and in order to understand their humor you have to understand their sadness because they're connected? People don't get that now. To me, Secretary was a sad story for humorous people. It's actually very funny. But you have to feel the pain of it before you can laugh at it. I think you can certainly like the movie and like the story too, but I think a lot of people whom the movie would appeal to would not understand that.

And here's another good one:

How were you introduced to sex as a child?

I had very early a sense that sex was very complex and potentially violent. And I don't mean violent in a terrible way, but that it involved a very powerful clash between two people — powerful whether they were male and female or of the same gender. There's a kind of oppositional meeting taking place. I got that from watching cartoons. Mighty Mouse, Popeye and Olive Oyl. Mighty Mouse was my first crush. I thought Mighty Mouse was really virile. And he was. He was always saving some helpless female. I remember one cartoon in which he was saving a female mouse that had been hypnotized by a villain and she was singing in a high voice, "Don't You Remember Sweet Alice," and the villain had placed her on a conveyor belt that was heading toward a buzzsaw. Mighty Mouse came along at the last minute and rescued her and carried her off, still singing. I just thought that was so erotic! And I was probably like eight.

And then on The Three Stooges, women were always getting shot in the butt with nail guns or something. And Olive Oyl was always having incredibly humiliating things happen to her, but being rescued by Popeye in the end, so Brutus would be put down. But it was clear that you needed Brutus. There would be no story without Brutus.

(Thanks to Jimmy Beck for the link.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

I am so excited...

It's official, according to the Guardian: Jane Yeh's first book of poetry Marabou has made the shortlist in the poetry category for the Whitbread Book Awards. Jane's poems are outrageously good (here's her website, where you can see for yourself), I am crossing my fingers she will win this (Jane deserves the greatest success in the world, of course she is one of my favorite people ever but I swear this is an objective judgment... anyway I am delighted that she's shortlisted).

Here's one poem I particularly like, for a treat. I hope you will find it as surprising and appealingly twisty-turny as I do & order her book. It's great.

— article on preproduction for the first Harry Potter film, New York Post, August 2000

Claw up. Claw down. Cut.
My fine eyes. My fine eyes are— Cut.

I was fluffed and plucked, like a beauty-pageant winner,
Between takes. Like a news presenter.
Could I be a news presenter?

Rider: 5 rashers bacon. 8-oz. tin mixed nuts.
2 lbs. rabbit fillets. Assorted drupes.

Between takes, I did leg-lifts in my trailer.

If asked what is your most treasured possession, I would say
The woolly toy Tracey, my personal trainer, gave me when young.
I learnt to spy it from afar, then swoop down and seize,
But only on cue. Mr Sheep goes everywhere with me now.

If I could wake up having gained one ability,
It would be the capacity for more facial expression.
It is so tedious to have one’s beak set in a permanent frown.

My greatest talent is impersonation—
To simulate a person’s idea of an owl.
Sadly, I owe my success to typecasting.

My greatest fear is to be found wanting.

At the premiere party, the women were not very clothed.
It is of advantage to be clad always in feathers.

I allowed fake friends to pet me.
My picture was taken several times with the boy.
I enjoy parties because otherwise I see only Tracey.
Afterwards, you wonder what the glitter was for.

Literary crushes from college

while I wait for the espresso to brew (here's the inspiration for this post, the rather appealing Slate compilation "My First Literary Crush - The books famous people loved in college").

It is funny how clearly I remember the new books I was introduced to in my first two years or so of college. I had already been reading like a maniac for a long time (well, forever really, I have been a truly obsessive reader since I was five years old or possibly even longer), and I've got a litany of names I associate with high school (fortunately I went to the kind of high school where reading was cool): Burgess, Fowles, Pynchon, Bukowski, Robert Graves and Gore Vidal and other opinionated historical novelists, Nabokov of course (I remember writing a college application essay about Pale Fire and theories of linguistic perspicuity, it would be funny if I could dig that one up and post some of it here--I must look next time I'm at my mom's house), a host of others but those are the ones that come clearest to mind now. Dickens, Austen (who remain the two most important classic novelists for me, the two I really can't do without). A lot of science fiction and fantasy and crime: Dick Francis, Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, the trashy but much-loved Anne McCaffrey.

College? A funnier assortment, and most particularly a rather stringent one: 1988-1990 was a testy and judgmental though still enthusiastic phase in my reading habit. (I continued to read a lot of more or less trashy novels on the side, which made me almost unique as far as I could tell in that environment: most college students then as now simply do not feel they have time to read anything that's not assigned. Which is a great pity. But I'm delighted how many of my students at Columbia have proved an exception to this rule: lots of them really do follow their inclinations as far as reading goes, and I love it that way).

Most mind-blowing read: Anti-Oedipus by Deleuze and Guattari, which I read again and again.

Most "I want to write a book like this" read: Sartre's The Words.

Most influential on my fiction-writing (for better and for worse): Beckett's trilogy.

Favorite extracurricular reading: Katherine Dunn's Geek Love; Pynchon's Vineland, which I uncharacteristically and extravagantly bought in hardcover because I was so impatient to read it (and which delighted me by including a Deleuze and Guattari joke I would have missed a few years earlier--aesthetic convergence!).

Most important for future career: an independent study on the eighteenth-century novel (well, technically it was a junior tutorial) with my favorite grad student tutor, M., who was a brilliant and kind mentor and generously introduced me to narratology as well as lots of other things. We read Pamela and Rousseau's Confessions and Tristram Shandy and some other stuff I can't now call to mind and though I think I was particularly distracted and badly behaved that semester (I seem to remember M. shaking her head at me in despair as I turned up with yet another completely different hair color to our Friday afternoon meeting--pink, blue, green, whatever--and saying "Everything would be better if you spent as much time preparing for tutorial as you do dying your hair"... then again M. was also the person who charmingly, naively, inquired of me at the end of my first year of college, with true academic quasi-sociological interest in the drug-taking habits of myself and my peers, "So, Jenny, do you and your friends shoot up acid?" Happily I was able to answer in the negative), I loved those books and they have since become my bread and butter.

I am ridiculously excited

about Slate Goes to College - A week of articles about higher education. I've been thinking a lot about education recently, more than usual I mean; I'll post in more detail once I've had a chance to read some of this stuff and see what I think.

There's an exciting article

about orangutans in the Science Times.

Monday, November 14, 2005

I shouldn't read these things

at midnight; now I'm all riled up from skimming through the latest issue of n+1. I did not renew my subscription before I left New York, in part because I don't think I've ever read another publication that seemed so roundly to remind me of the fact that I do not have a Y chromosome, but my friend S. has loaned me hers (we are in agreement that the editorial piece on dating that's currently excerpted on the website is distasteful, though I can see that if I try to explain why I think so, I will sound like a fretful and humorless feminist; perhaps I will instead just express my dislike for that editorial "we," on the grounds that it rarely leads to sharp and appealing writing).

I've been dying to read the Walter Benn Michaels essay on class (well, "dying" is a terrible exaggeration, but it's been nagging at me, not least because some paragraphs by Benn Michaels about the idea of "breeding" in his book Our America helped me realize that Breeding was the title for my new academic book). It's excellent, combative and sly in its framing of arguments that we on the whole do not want to hear about neoliberalism and Ivy League schools and the disingenuous American obsession with meritocracy. I must read Curtis Sittenfeld's novel Prep, too, I tried to get it at the library the other day but it was not where it was supposed to be (predictably stolen from the stacks?). The piece is very nicely paired with a great essay--story?--by J. D. Daniels. This is the magazine at its best, as far as I am concerned: intellectual but accessible, challenging, controversial--even slightly disagreeable, which gives it a nice edge--while still appealing enough to keep me reading.

My other two favorite pieces were Emily Votruba on women's boxing and an absolutely charming essay by Elif Batuman on Franco Moretti's Graphs, Maps, Trees, another book I must get and read at once. (I also enjoyed Siddartha Deb's devastating review of Rushdie's latest--which I have here but am relatively unlikely to read, unless snowbound & fiction-deprived; I don't say that in the spirit of snark, just as a truthful observation--and two likeable essays, one by Pankaj Mishra and the other by my friend Marco Roth.)

It's the other stuff that gives me the feeling of guy-ness that I don't like. I don't want to read high-falutin philosophizing about pop music and reality TV; it seems to me that the ideal of crashing together the academic and the journalistic should take you altogether the other way, with a more accessible and down-to-earth prose style but a high level of intellectual acuity about important things. (It's not that I don't like Radiohead or think their music is important and interesting. I do. I just don't like this kind of cultural criticism, which seems to me to trumpet its superiority over the material it cannibalizes and to speak only to a tiny circle of insiders. It's a matter of taste, but it runs pretty deep. And I don't really like DeLillo and so I also don't like what seemed to me a vaguely DeLilloesque--what's up with that comma use, anyway?--story by Benjamin Kunkel that is also included in the issue. Sorry, guys. It is awkward blogging negatively about people I am reasonably likely to see at future parties in NY, isn't it? Take this in the spirit of rational dissent.)

Finally, I found James Wood's reply to the attack on his criticism in the magazine's first issue alternately engaging and maddening: there I am thinking "oh, how reasonable he sounds, and I don't at all disagree with his judgments of these individual authors" and then I come up against a sentence that completely alienates me in its anti-intellectualism and its deliberate refusal to entertain the rules of argument rather than masking its opinion-ness in an infuriating cloak of elegant phraseology. An example: Wood uses Henry James' phrase "'the present palpable-intimate'" as a rubric to describe his own credo for fiction, then glosses the term "present": "I think the novel should deal with current reality; I have no time for historical fiction, seeing it as merely science fiction facing backwards." Since when did cleverly and unexpectedly saying that thing X inverts thing Y count as an explanation for why thing X is bad, unless you cheaply invoke a set of unfair stereotypes about both kinds of novel, particularly disparaging about science fiction? "Merely science fiction facing backwards": that dandyish contemptuousness, that thoughtless sweep.... We all have our tastes, but there's no point kidding ourselves they're moral virtues. (I don't think that quite counts as an editorial "we," just an irritable generalization in the first-person plural, but perhaps it's a sign that I had better retire for the evening....) In any case, it's clearly contradicted by lots of his preferences: you would have to call Jonathan Lethem (whose writing Wood admires) a writer of historical fiction, wouldn't you, and probably of science fiction as well?

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Two novels, fat and thin

Actually, not particularly; but one (the thinner) is much better than the other (the fatter). The great one is Liquor by Poppy Z. Brite, with its appealing pair of main characters and its excellent inside look at the restaurant world (and a lot of gripping books about restaurants are gripping without being particularly good, like this one which I could not put down [I actually totally recommend it, it's compulsive reading] but which relies on a forced narrative structure--will Daniel regain the lost fourth star?--and a heavy use of mind-numbingly boring tape-recorded kitchen exchanges, so it is nice to get a really good one for a change).

Brite's food descriptions are mostly seriously mouth-watering, but my favorites were the ones of things I'd rather see than eat: the St. Joseph's altar with a rosary made of white chocolate and "a cake in the shape of a lamb, frosted white and finished with coconut for wool and jelly-beans for eyes"; the chocolate mold of Napoleon Bonaparte's death mask, filled with a frozen mousse of Napoleon brandy and Camembert ice cream. Funny, smart, plus there's a revolting description of veal kidneys cooked in gin that will really stick with you (the cook's boyfriend has a bite and says it "tastes like a piece of liver marinated in a urinal").

The other one? I couldn't resist it the other day--some novels are just ludicrously incongruous finds in the Harvard stacks, though it is the charm of a really great research library that you never know what you will find on the shelf--I was looking for something quite different but I plucked the supermodel Naomi Campbell's 1994 novel Swan from the C's and have just finished reading it. The copyright page makes it quite clear that the book was really written by Caroline Upcher; if I had to guess, I'd speculate that she tape-recorded a bunch of conversations with Campbell, stuck some of those paragraphs in here and there but mostly just wrote it herself.

And a very good thing too. I really enjoyed it--it's not the kind of thing I usually read, but it now has the retro appeal of the newly extinct species. I am sure people are still writing the odd "shopping and fucking" novel here and there, but they have been largely supplanted by middle-of-the-road chick lit. The best novels that fall under that rubric are of course excellent, but I do feel after reading this that we have lost something by moving to such a resolutely modest and realistic mode. The excesses of the shopping novels can be really delightful; this is actually a very enjoyable read, it's got way too many characters and a completely shambolic plot (charmingly involving a seedy snuff enterprise in which the victims--counterintuitively--are men, though the novelist doesn't make much of this, and irrelevant Yardies and medieval chapels and all sorts of other good things) and an endearingly serious argument about the importance of putting black models on magazine covers and I liked it for its all-round all-over-the-place-ness.

(I will admit that there are a few awful moments. Too much name-dropping, for one thing. One pricelessly awful sentence [only parts are written in the first person, it's a bit of a hodgepodge]: "Mummy had been right. The beastly press hounds were baying for blood already. I saw them as I slipped across 76th Street at Madison. I refused to let them force me to alter my routine. I crossed Madison as I always did to go and look in Givenchy's window. They always compared me to Audrey Hepburn's Givenchy-clad Holly Golightly in the film of Breakfast at Tiffany's, and I suppose I did sort of have something of her dark-haired elfin look." I was also interested to learn that "the basic difference between England and America" is that if you're a model in America you have to give half of what you earn to the agency and they pay thirty percent of that to the IRS, whereas in England you hand over only twenty percent to the agency but have to pay your own tax. But mostly it's not like this at all. My grandmother would have quite liked it.)

I was particularly struck as I read the first hundred pages by what you lose if chick lit becomes the dominant form for popular women's writing: it pretty much means sticking to one woman's story (more on the private-investigator-fiction model, where you hew tightly to one character's point-of-view, than on the post-family-saga multi-plot novel) or perhaps if you're branching out three, whereas this kind of novel blithely takes you all over the world with lots of different characters of different races and nationalities and so on. Go on, admit it, if you're a woman of a certain age--if you were thirteen years old in 1984, like I was--you still find an irresistible glamor to the phrase "Which one of you bitches is my mother?"....

Here's a rather excellent Amazon review of Swan, anyway:

This book was absolutely fabulous! The book is definately a page turner up to the very last page. Naomi weaves the lives of a dozen characters seamlessly. It was very modern and informative. There is a peak at the great exciting and the not so glamorous sides to fashion. The book explains cultural, racially, and international differences thoughts and traditions that just made me think about the role I play as a public viewer and a consumer. Even though it was a fictionalized story there were so many real to life examples of things that happen. It really made me think. I loved the characters, the designs, the designers, the talk of the clothes, romance, sexy scenes(without being trashy), and the kindred networking and friendship between the women characters in the book. I also enjoyed the suspense. Naomi even gives humanity to the most unsavory characters. I hope that Naomi Campbell sends another novel our way. This book is a great read.

And Library Journal rather rudely offers the following:

In her early twenties, Swan is the world's best-known supermodel. Desiring a change, the English-born beauty decides to step down as the sole representative of the Swan beauty line, subsequently triggering a global search for a new Swan girl. Five young models are on the short list, some shy and naive, others poised and assertive, and one bent on a course of self-destruction. As Swan prepares to make some significant changes in her life, rumors about her sister's mysterious death 14 years earlier surface in a menacing manner. Readers are immersed in the internal world of modeling: the fashion designers, bookers, agencies, hair stylists, and photographers. Despite the insider perspective provided by Campbell-herself a supermodel-the narrative is somewhat disjointed, making the various stories difficult to follow. Not an essential purchase.

I still haven't read Jennie Erdal's book Ghosting, just the great excerpts in Granta and elsewhere; I must get it, though. I definitely wouldn't want to ghost someone's novel, but I've always thought it would be appealing to be paid a ton of money to ghost some celebrity's autobiography: it would be interesting to take a folder of clippings and do a lot of hours of interviewing and then try to piece something together that would actually have the person's voice, maybe more than their own writing would even have had. And then the money part would be good too. But it would be satisfying to make something like that come out really well.

(And though I had already checked the book out, I might never have actually gotten around to reading it if I hadn't seen this post at Rake's Progress about Nicole Richie's recently released novel The Truth About Diamonds. Which I am not going to get or read. But though I find it extremely unlikely that someone reading this blog entry is interested in purchasing the volume in question, here's the Amazon link.)

Saturday, November 12, 2005

It pained me

to read the fascinating but pretty awful excerpts from John Fowles' journals in the Guardian. I have no desire to pontificate about "the life and the art"-type questions, but I would have to say that this is really objectionable (and my suspicion is that if I reread his novels now, I would find the stuff about men and women in The Magus, for instance, pretty hard to swallow). The cumulative effect of the passages they print is quite rancorous; they are rife with self-hatred and hatred of the other, and yet also frighteningly perceptive. Chilling stuff.

Here's Fowles moving to comment on sex roles in general after a few comments about his wife's acute unhappiness (this is November 1966, I think):

Behind all these unhappy women is the same horror: their loneliness, their unnecessity. The fault of our society has been to emancipate women but to refuse to furnish (to train them for) their freedom. They are to be equal to us; but the only equality offered them is ours, the male definition (in social and career terms) of the concept. So the only ones who gain are the masculine type, the ones who can copy them. All that has happened to the true women is that they have been turned out, like so many cage birds, into a world where they cannot fend for themselves.

That kind of talk of "true women" and womanliness makes me want to be sick! Seriously, there are few things more revolting to me. Equally or perhaps more disturbing is the strong anti-Semitic strain. Here's Fowles writing of his publisher, Tom Maschler: "I think of all the Jews I know he is the most Jewish: the perfect example of the bitter, wandering, cast-out son of Israel. The sad Quixote of English litbiz." And here's Fowles on on Salman Rushdie (following a dinner party at Fay Weldon's house in the country, post-fatwa):

So he says, trying to be ruefully dry, contemptuous, macho and wise all at the same time. That is the poor man's fault. Part of him does know Britain and the British backwards, especially the ad-agency and literary worlds; and indeed this makes him rather like a Jew of the Tom Maschler and Freddie Raphael kind, permanently eager to get on, yet somehow grudging that he is not better recognised; never quite able to bring all his knowledge together, as Conrad did, never to be altogether English. He somehow both wants to be taken as English; and yet free to be a foreigner, and to criticise; both to be loved and admired by us, but to stand apart.

The one thing that really called to me was a little list of dates from one of the journal entries:

The French Lieutenant's Woman

First draft completed October 1967.

First revision April 23 1968.

Second revision June 17 1968.

Third revision and new ending August 25 1968

This will sound ridiculously hubristic, to compare myself to John Fowles (and after the foregoing, it seems an undesirable as well as impossible identification in any case), but I have been struggling with the obligation to revise my new novel yet one more time; I want to be writing something new, I need to be writing something new for my own sanity and peace of mind, and yet I've got a really intensive and thoroughgoing overhaul to do on this one first. Fowles is heartening from a reviser's point of view, since even his best novels underwent major changes from first to final drafts, down to uncertainties about endings and so on.

Friday, November 11, 2005

I think my very favorite books

of this past year or so have been the Australian crime writer Peter Temple's; they fit perfectly with my aesthetic (here's my most recent post on the subject, with links to previous ones as well). I've been hampered in my efforts to recommend them, though, by the fact of their being published only in Australia. But now--drumroll...--MacAdam/Cage have published the first two books in the Jack Irish series in the US. Seriously, if you have any affinity whatsoever for crime fiction, or if you just appreciate a great prose style, order yourself a copy of Bad Debts and I defy you not to fall a little bit in love with the voice & the Australian vocabulary & the sensibility and order the next one immediately (it's Black Tide). If there was any justice in the world, this guy would already be known as a fitting successor to Dick Francis and be selling millions of copies and winning lots of prizes here. Meanwhile, go and read!

NY-area Nabokov-lovers take note

Brian Boyd is lecturing on Monday Nov. 14 at Columbia University, 4-6pm in International Affairs Building 1219, sponsored by the Harriman Institute. Here are more details, including Boyd's description of what the talk will be about:

"Nabokov, Or What Could Be Verse”

Nabokov is famous, even notorious, for his rejection of rhymed verse translations during and after his monumental translation of Pushkin’s "Eugene Onegin." But for many years he translated verse into rhyme in various directions, from English, French and German (Shakespeare, Baudelaire and Goethe, for example) into Russian, and from Russian (all the way from Lomonosov to Okudzhava) into English and French. I will consider Nabokov’s changing theory and practice of verse translation, and the problems of any attempt to offer access to a foreign poetic tradition, focusing especially on the example of one of Pushkin’s most famous short lyrics, “Ya vas lyubil” (“I loved you once”), which Nabokov attempted three times to translate. I think a non-Russian reader /can/ be made to enjoy Pushkin’s genius—but did Nabokov himself succeed?

I love that little Pushkin poem, it's the only poem I know by heart in Russian (it's very sweet and sad, although I fear I probably picked it to learn more because it's so short); and I still remember having one of those funny and strangely serious conversations you have in language classes with my long-ago Russian teacher about whether the narrator really means what he says in the last line. (Here's the poem, in transliterated Russian and English translation.)

And for a bonus, if you haven't already seen it, go and check out this Nabokovian gem in the VLS by the proprietor of The Dizzies.

There's a great long review essay

of an interesting group of books about Samuel Johnson at the TLS site. I must get all of these from the library if I can (I have to give a talk about Johnson at the end of January and several of these books are immediately relevant), but there are several that I covet, especially Allen Reddick's facsimile edition of Johnson's corrections to the Dictionary. Reddick is the author of a really superb book called The Making of Johnson's Dictionary; I love this stuff.

(Link courtesy of The Elegant Variation.)

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Here's my review

at the Voice Literary Supplement of Stephen King's The Colorado Kid, published by Hard Case Crime. I liked it a lot.

In my review I mention the fact that a Denver Starbucks features--impossibly--in an inset tale set in 1980; after writing the review the first weekend in September and sending it off, I then saw a similar criticism at The Complete Review. They subsequently offered the following update (I've taken some liberties with the formatting, for clarification of what's quoted from where):

Update: The official Stephen King site offers a Continuity Clarification from Stephen (scroll down to 7 October entry):

"The review of The Colorado Kid in today’s issue of today's USA Today mentions that there was no Starbucks in Denver in 1980. Don’t assume that’s a mistake on my part. The constant readers of the Dark Tower series may realize that that is not necessarily a continuity error, but a clue."

If it is a clue, we still can't figure out for what.

I can't figure it out either (and haven't read the Dark Tower at all, let alone being a constant reader). Any clarification from some better-informed reader would be welcome in the comments. I assume it is some reality-melting meta- thing that doesn't work for the general reader?

Monday, November 07, 2005

And that Mary Gaitskill essay

I mentioned but didn't link to last week, about hosting two children via the Fresh Air Fund (a remarkable and upsetting piece of writing, do take a look), can be found here; it's called "Love Lessons," and it was originally published in the Washington Post in May 2004. (Thanks to Jennifer Weiner for the link and to Bookslut for pointing me that way.)

John Fowles

has died. (Link via Maud Newton.)

That really feels like the end of an era to me. In many ways I am very much like my fifteen-year-old self, but one way in which the two selves are largely discontinuous is that at that age I spent large amounts of time reading the more demanding kind of twentieth-century literary fiction. (Whereas now I'm pretty lazy--well, I read a lot of more demanding stuff for work--but for fun I mostly read things that will immediately gratify me. Also I don't play any musical instruments. Or do math. Or live with my parents. These are the main differences.)

It is an equal mix ridiculous and endearing in retrospect, I suppose, but I had (for instance) Anthony Burgess's rather peculiar 1984 book titled 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939 (if I had it here in front of me, I'd give you a better sense of its crankiness, but I don't, so will just say from memory that it includes Kingsley Amis's The Alteration--a good but odd choice--and Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings--a ludicrous choice--plus a disproportionate quantity of rather dreary postwar British fiction like David Lodge's How Far Can You Go? in addition to some more obvious picks). And I very seriously and solemnly used it as a checklist and read through almost all of them, including (stoically, with some enjoyment especially at the more perverse parts but also with a dictionary in hand since for once I didn't know what all the words meant already) Gravity's Rainbow. Actually a rather fun moment a few years ago was when I had my Literature Humanities students over for dinner at the end of the year--I'm breaking my usual rule of not commenting on anything to do with my students or my work life, but it was such a nice thing I don't think it's a problem--and one of the best students I've had at Columbia spotted the Burgess book on my shelf and was mesmerizedly flipping through it, I pressed it on him & felt like I was passing on the torch to the younger generation. Pretty funny.

Of course at that age I also read a ton of crime and science fiction and fantasy novels, and classic nineteenth-century novels, and all that sort of thing, but I think it was from ages 13 to 16 or so that I had a really unlimited appetite for the most cerebral twentieth-century fiction. I guess once I got to college, I figured out how to find and read exactly the things I wanted to, and my desire for challenging material got channeled into literary theory and eighteenth-century political writing and all sorts of other things. But John Fowles was a particular favorite of mine in those teenage years, and I read his books again and again (it will seem almost unbelievable to someone who knows me now, but The Magus in particular was possibly my favorite novel--I think teenagers have a much higher tolerance for over-intellectual wordplay, creepy sexuality and vaguely occult mysticism than grownups). (Also there is a very good scene with rabbits in Daniel Martin. Actually, all his books are kind of great, though not so much the kind of thing I read now.) Anyway, RIP. Strange. Sad.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

I have got to get

Robert Sapolsky's new book Monkeyluv: And Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals. Sapolsky is a fabulous writer, A Primate's Memoir is a must-read and his other books are great too.

I'm snatching a few moments

to blog about the three books I read late last night when I couldn't sleep, all great (short, though, it wasn't a marathon reading effort of any kind, just minor insomnia). First of all, The Value of X and The Devil You Know by Poppy Z. Brite. (NB judging by the huge long Amazon listings this second seems to be an excessively popular title--not the Brite book itself but the title "The Devil You Know," there are at least a dozen novels or maybe more that have it. Perhaps it's best avoided in future; however I can see it's tempting, in fact I'm giving a talk in January with the title "The Devil's in the Details" [it's about Johnson and Boswell and how realist writers use detail and the relationship between biography and the eighteenth-century novel, but also I was thinking of Thea Gilmore's song "Rags and Bones" (and Avalanche is an outrageously good album, just go ahead and buy it if you like Elvis Costello and Gillian Welch and in general great highly literate songwriting, you will not regret spending the money)]. As a further aside, let me say that in both my fiction and my academic writing I have long since and almost entirely weeded out such self-indulgent habits as parenthesis, long hypotactic sentences, digressions and so forth, and one of the great pleasures of blogging is that I abandon my almost moral grammatical stringency and write however the hell I want to, digressions and parentheses and all. So there.)

The stories in The Devil You Know are almost all extremely engaging, though I think my favorites are the morbid and funny ones narrated by Doc Brite, Poppy Z.'s alter ego, who happens to be a pathologist/gourmet in the city of New Orleans. I'd love to see a whole novel written in this voice, though I don't know if it's sustainable: I picture it coming out something like John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure, or what Hannibal could have been if it were a lot more brilliant and demented and funny.

The Value of X is a kind of prequel to Liquor and Prime, and it's absolutely delightful, the story of how Rickey and G-man (friends since childhood) got together and realized they were in love. It's sweet and also very funny: one of the great charms for me of these books is the way Brite (who is presumably aligned with Rickey in terms of her own personality) is so perceptive and funny about each boy's strengths and weaknesses. G-man is the more immediately endearing character, and yet Brite handles Rickey and his impossibleness in a way that makes you really feel for him too. Here's a brief passage from one of the letters Rickey writes to G-man from his exile at the Culinary Institute of America, where his parents have sent him in the hope that his cooking obsession combined with the separation from G-man will persuade him not to be gay any more. G-man is really upset with Rickey for leaving, Rickey misses him terribly, and yet because he's a totally cooking-obsessed and self-absorbed guy this is the letter he actually writes:

Intro to Gastronomy is great. At first I thought it was going to suck too, because we started with etiquette. Who cares? I'm going to be in a kitchen all my life. I don't need to know how to use fingerbowls. But then the teacher started talking about the history of the chef in French cuisine and that was really interesting. Did you ever hear of Antonin Car^eme? He was the father of haute cuisine. He invented the "pi`ece mont'ee," which is a dessert shaped like a famous statue or building. Napoleon loved to have them at his royal banquets. We also learned about Plato, who was a philosopher in olden times. He said there is a perfect version of every dish and the cook's job is to find it.

And the other one was the remarkably enjoyable Dating Dead Men, by Harley Jane Kozak of the Lipstick Chronicles. These books have a great, great first-person voice, very appealing narrative persona. The plot's kind of all over the place, too twisty and confusing and a bit silly, but it really doesn't matter: plus this one has a very charming ferret called Margaret.

And then this afternoon I got to hear a piece of Nico's played at the Boston Conservatory (the whole program was excellent, new and newish music for saxophone and percussion played by the Yesaroun' Duo; Sam Solomon as well as being a brilliant performer substance-wise is also particularly pleasing to watch, he is so elegant in his handling of the percussionist's tools). If you click here and scroll down, you can hear a recording of Nico Muhly's piece "Time After Time" for soprano saxophone, marimba and percussion.

So it was all good, and that Fielding essay that's been plaguing me is fully drafted and should be properly finished and sent off within twenty-four hours at which point I hope to feel like a normal human being again.

Saturday, November 05, 2005


I knew I had to get this book and read it at soon as I saw Sarah Weinman's description: "What can I say? I really dug this book, which is touted as 'Bram Stoker meets Raymond Chandler' but calling it Vamp Noir works just fine. Joe Pitt's an undead PI working in and around the East Village, which is a really nice touch. There's clan fights, unrequited love, horrible family secrets and lots of blood, and Huston makes it all work because his voice comes through clear as day in every line of dialogue and description. Look for it in -- wait for it -- early January." The book is Almost Dead by Charlie Huston. And it's excellent: violent, gruesome and extremely well-written. I like this very dark supernatural urban fiction. It may sound like I'm pitifully jumping on the bandwagon--taken together with the excellent Peeps by Scott Westerfeld, this book has to represent something like a big trend for scientifically plausible-sounding Manhattan vampire stuff--but I am now itching to write my own. I am going to do it as soon as I find a window of time not already committed to finishing the big two existing book projects. It's going to be set in upper Manhattan, it will be violent and dark but also slightly tongue-in-cheek (and the narrator/main character won't be a vampire, she will have a more animal-shape-shifter-y type problem having to do with sex--don't ask, I'm still working out the details but it's going to be pretty funny), like a kind of cross between Laurell K. Hamilton and the absolutely superb Carlucci books by Richard Paul Russo.


Writing at the Guardian, Jay Parini has a great review of Melville: His World and Work by my colleague Andrew Delbanco. Andy's reading at Brookline Booksmith on Nov. 16, an event I'm very much looking forward to.

Something about being out of NY makes me much, much more likely to go to cultural-event/reading-type things. Recently I saw a really good one at the Harvard Bookstore, my colleague Jim Shapiro speaking about his book A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, which has been receiving glowing reviews all over the place (I'm too lazy to link)--haven't yet cracked the book open, but it looks great. Jim didn't read from the book; instead he spoke for ten or fifteen minutes and then took questions from the audience, and it was great, much more interesting to listen to than most readings. I was making mental notes: when I went around reading from my first novel, I had a few different ways of reading, one short piece for when I was on a program with other people and one main long one for when I was alone at a bookstore and one alternate long one that wasn't quite as racy as the first. Then I'd take questions afterwards. But in retrospect it was much too much reading aloud (it is tempting, I love reading aloud but as I don't much like being read aloud to, I should remember the needs of others), I should have just had the short excerpt and then done questions and conversation, which I like doing (I'm used to it from teaching & such) and is much more engaging for the audience to listen to. Consider this a resolution for the future, anyway.

Friday, November 04, 2005

A good slide show essay

at Slate on the Body Worlds exhibition and the history of anatomy.


I have blogged before about why I find Poppy Z. Brite such a compelling writer. She's really, really excellent; plagued now, I think, by fans who want to hang on to her early mode of goth-vampire-queer-teenager-inflected fiction and who have not understood the extent to which her new crime novels make an even more appealing and effective sequel/next stage in her writing career than more vampire/horror books. I am very strongly drawn to her fiction, and on the plane on the way back from LA read most of the highly enjoyable Lost Souls. I still haven't read Liquor, but must get hold of a copy at once.

The chartreuse in Mary Gaitskill's Veronica is a color not a drink, but the sensibilities have something in common. (Reading these two books in a row made me think about which I'd choose, a decadent downtown-Manhattan-in-the-70s art-scene burnout or a small-town southern queer Goth rock-n-roll one? Actually, of course it's no contest, the second is much more appealing. Though I suppose the first is easier to imagine myself in. I still feel like I was there in spirit for those early Velvet Underground shows, isn't that absurd?)

I have mixed feelings about this novel now that I've finished it. There are things I really loved, and Gaitskill's cool--cold--sensibility is something I find remarkable. I also like the combination of flat affect with ethical reflection. But I'd say that Two Girls, Fat and Thin is the more astonishing novel of the two. (The stories in Bad Behavior are pretty great too. I believe that Gaitskill more or less disavowed the movie Secretary, loosely based on one of these stories. But it's a great movie: I never see any movies, but my friend P. saw it and basically called me up and said "You HAVE to see this movie!" and took me to it not long afterwards to make sure I didn't weasel out, as I often do with films; and it is fantastic. It would be psychologically truer if it ended in the middle, with Maggie G. in complete abjection and misery; but I liked the fairy-tale ending. And what is REALLY good, but I couldn't find a link to online, is an essay Gaitskill published a little while ago in the Washington Post, about hosting children for summer vacations through the Fresh Air Fund. If it wasn't included in that year's Best American Essays collection, it should have been.)

What I like about Gaitskill's writing is its painful urgency and moral seriousness. But I'm not sure this time around that the sentences can bear the weight she asks them to. I marked a few different passages that struck me, but in each case the language felt slightly flat, not so much emotionally affectless as under-listened-to (or in the other sensory metaphor, not read with a sharp enough eye). Here's one set of sentences, about the narrator Alison's sort-of-friendship with a rich girl called Ceclia:

I understood that Cecilia looked at me as an object with specific functions, because that's how I looked at her. Without knowing it, that is how I looked at everyone who came into my life then. This wasn't because I had no feelings. I wanted to know people. I wanted to love. But I didn't realize how badly I had been hurt. I didn't realize that my habit of distance had become so unconscious and deep that I didn't know how to be with another person. I could only fix that person in my imagination and turn him this way and that, trying to feel him, until my mind was tired and raw.

Those words "tired and raw" make the rest of the paragraph work for me, but out of context I'm not sure it works. In another passage that caught my eye, here's Alison telling the story of her friend Veronica's "coarse and sentimental stories," including one about "being raped by a man who broke into her apartment" that includes the line (Veronica's line) "'My rapist was very tender'":

Smart people would say she spoke that way about the story because she was trying to take control over it, because she wanted to deny the pain of it, even make herself superior to it. This is probably true. Smart people would also say that sentimentality always indicates a lack of feeling. Maybe this is true, too. But I'm sure she truly thought the rapist was tender. If he'd had a flash of tenderness anywhere in him, a memory of his mother, of himself as a baby, of a toy, she would've felt it because she was desperate for it. Even though it had nothing to do with her, she would've sought it, reaching for it as it sank away in a deep pool. I'll be looking at the moon, but I'll be seeing---

Or this description of a picture from a photo-shoot with Alison and "two other girls, one of whom was an unstable lesbian with dark, dramatic looks and a known hard-on for the other, a bland blonde from Norway who didn't speak English" (see, there the diction's more interesting, I like that "bland blonde from Norway" sequence, I don't know what happened to intensify the consonant thing but it's good):

At the end, [the photographer] had Pia strip down to her underwear and hurl herself onto the fence, like she was 'trying to get to Ava,' grabbing it with her hands and bare feet. Most models of Pia's stature would never have done that. But he knew she would. She was half out of her mind with lovelessness and rage, and she wanted people to see it--she wanted it revealed and articulated. She threw herself at the fence again and again, until her hands and feet were bleeding. That shot ran at the end of a three-page spread and it was a great picture; Pia's nakedness was blurred by the fence and by her motion, but her face and flying hair came at you like demon beauty bursting out of darkness to devour human beauty. Ava and I huddled together in our pale spring lace, two maids lost in a postmodern wood, she moving forward, me half-turning toward the demon who silently howled at us with her great gold eyes, her genital mouth and long flawless claws with just a hint of anguish in their swollen knuckles. Of course, you didn't see any blood. You didn't see human pain on the demon's face--or rather, you saw it as a shadow, a slight darkness that foregrounded the beauty of the picture and gave it a sort of luscious depth. It was a page-stopper. It restarted my career.

I think that's the best paragraph in the book. Pretty amazing, no? Gaitskill should be writing urban fantasy...

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The house-bound crab

Tonight I went to see Jonathan Lethem read at MIT, I am wary of readings in general but this one was really excellent. A new story about a Lethem stand-in (the name's pronounced Lee-them, not Lay-them as I had previously assumed) interviewing the Crab, the has-been former star (a crustacean) of a Married-With-Childrenesque "television situation comedy." Very funny, very well-written, rather touching (also it included cloning and the witty line "the evolution will not be televised," so I was altogether charmed; and I am of the particular vintage for whom Christina Applegate despite her many lapses in taste remains the height of charming hostile platinum-blonded femininity, and here's a shout-out to Jessie for her senior thesis which at least in my memory though possibly not in reality was titled "'Why Buy Milk When You Keep a Cow In the Kitchen?'" with some more illuminating subtitle about Married With Children). The story will be included as a bonus track (what's the literary equivalent?) in the soon-to-be-released paperback of Men and Cartoons.

Dinner afterwards at the Central Kitchen, a nice place on Mass Ave in Central Square; and finally life felt like something approaching normal. It is really nice that my Cambridge friends are so hospitable and dinner-party-hosting, but there is something really comfortable about having a drink at a bar--I expect this speaks poorly of my social skills and drinking habits...

I got a piece of good news earlier this week which I will blog about shortly, but meanwhile consider me very pleased with life. Not to mention I've written more than half of my Fielding essay and will definitely (barring unforeseen calamity) be done with it by the end of the weekend.