Saturday, December 31, 2005

Last post for 2005!

I was at the library on Thursday in a sort of a panic, racing around the stacks and squirreling away books in a bag and checking them out and generally causing the guy on the security desk to look at me quizzically and say, "You know, we're open again on Tuesday, you don't need to take away the whole library!" However I thought it best to stock up on really good stuff, esp. in anticipation of a solitary-Cambridge-exiled-New-Year's-Eve (actually it's very enjoyable, in NY I would be trailing around to various parties & witnessing the inevitable meltdowns and having transportation difficulties, this has been extremely placid in contrast).

So the last book read in 2005 has been Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music by Blair Tindall. I must confess I absolutely loved it, I think it's a great book despite occasional jumbled-up-ness and minor infelicities of style (some presumably due to editing--anyone who makes it to p. 267 of this classical-music memoir does NOT need editorial asides like "string players were unpacking their fiddles, rubbing rosin (a processed tree sap that is sold in hardened cakes) on their bows for friction against the strings"; @#$%^?!?).

I like the mix of memoir and jadedness and excitement about music and passionate polemic against the contemporary culture of classical music. Plus the AGONIZING descriptions of reed-making, the bane of every oboist's existence: the oboe is the true love of my life, I played a bunch of other instruments too but the oboe was THE ONE except for the torment, the agony, of the reed thing. (NB Meghan Daum has an excellent essay called Music is My Bag that is also about oboe-playing though more generally it's cultural criticism, and horrifyingly apt to former woodwind players in my particular age and geographical demographic.)

It strikes me as odd that my thirteen- or fourteen-year-old self would have immediately said that she wanted to be a classical musician, it seems inconceivable now. (The problem with music as with acting, two things I loved and devoted large amounts of time and energy to as a teenager, was that all I wanted was to play oboe or to act in plays whereas really my personality is more suited to a being-in-charge kind of thing; I could see that only conducting or directing would really have satisfied me, I had no impulse or talent to do either and so I happily became a writer and a professor instead. And it is just as well I am not a baroque-music-fixated oboist leading chamber ensembles and living on my credit cards, it would not be a good thing at all. As this book makes painfully clear.)

With the greater self-knowledge of (increasingly advanced) age, I can see that the one job in music that really would suit me would be record producer: it's sort of the equivalent of an editor, only more interventionist, you get to choose musicians and aggressively mold their sound in an agreeably bossy-while-it's-happening-and-yet-after-the-fact-altogether-behind-the-scenes kind of way. You know what I'm talking about: not the big deal-maker, but the one who tweaks the sound on the songs that makes the whole album work right. And tells the musicians that they have completely misunderstood their talents and need to try something completely different. That sort of thing. Sounds very enjoyable... (and the novel I know that has the best description of this is Liza Cody's Gimme More, which I highly recommend.)

So anyway, best wishes for 2006; having this blog's been one of my favorite things this year, and I am sure it will be next year too, so thanks for being part of the whole business. . . .

Friday, December 30, 2005


This essay actually appeared a couple of months ago, but I've just come across it and it's great and thought-provoking, well worth a read, Sheila Fitzpatrick's "A Little Swine" in the London Review of Books.

It's a review of a wonderful-sounding book called Comrade Pavlik: The Rise and Fall of a Soviet Boy Hero by Catriona Kelly; Fitzpatrick herself is the author of Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s. I think I must get both of these books and read them, this is a topic of endless fascination to me.

Here's a choice paragraph of Fitzpatrick's:

Imagine Denunciations, a parlour game, in which you, as a player, have to decide whose wrongdoing, and wrongdoing of what kind, to denounce to the authorities: your son's marijuana-growing; your neighbour's tax evasion; a colleague's affair with a student; a commuter who parks without a permit in front of your house; an Islamic extremist; an illegal immigrant; a paedophile schoolteacher or Scout leader; a sexist boss. Are all these denunciations equal in moral terms? Which, if any, could properly be addressed to a non-democratic government? Within the democratic context, to which authorities - local police, FBI/MI5, the inland revenue, your child's headmaster, your immediate boss at work - would you be willing to pass information, and what euphemism would you use? You might even go a step further and require players to offer their own most recent experience of denunciation, either as victim or as perpetrator.

The person who most taught me to think about these things was Judith Shklar, whose core lecture course on "Political Obligation" I took as an undergraduate at Harvard (I fear it was rather wasted on me at the time, it was certainly one of only a couple core courses that I really loved and learned a lot from--the other was a fantastic one called something like "The Development of the Modern State," with Stanley Hoffman, Tom Ertman and Peter Hall all lecturing--I had Hall for my section-leader and he was absolutely brilliant, one of the best teachers I had in college). Shklar's course included all sorts of good stuff, I can't remember exactly what (that's what I mean about it being wasted on me, my English classes I can name every single book on the syllabi) but there was Locke's Second Treatise of course and some Hume and a lot of Rousseau and Shakespeare's Richard II and Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral and it was altogether an example of the intellectual life at its best. (And almost certainly the first time that I realized political philosophy was the kind of literature I most liked to read and write and think about.)

I didn't get to know Shklar at all, since it wasn't a literature class per se I was keeping a low profile, but it really fundamentally shaped my understanding of what was interesting and important to think about. And when I later came to write my PhD dissertation on hypocrisy, there was no single book that more immediately affected my sense of what I wanted to argue than Shklar's Ordinary Vices, with its chapters on cruelty and hypocrisy and other "ordinary vices" and its reflections on political-psychological phenomena such as denunciation, betrayal and so on. (Well, there are some pages in Arendt's On Revolution that were important too, and Sissela Bok's Lying, but I think my approach was closer to Shklar's than to either of the others', partly because she was so attentive to language.

(By the way, I disagree with all of them with regard to hypocrisy, but then hypocrisy is the great misunderstood thing in eighteenth-century writing....) If you like Arendt but haven't read Shklar, do take a look at some of her writing, you pretty much can't go wrong with it.

And messing around looking for links for this post led me to a really wonderful essay of Shklar's called "A Life of Learning"--click on the link and check it out. I'm pasting a few paragraphs in below for a taste, but it includes fascinating reflections on women in academia in the 1950s and 1960s, reading Rousseau as a psychologist (metaphorically, not literally) and the condition of being a refugee.

Anyway, here are her wry paragraphs about arriving at Harvard as a graduate student:

In many respects the Harvard that I entered in 1951 was a far less open scholarly society than it now is. The effects of McCarthyism were less crude and immediate than subtle and latent. The general red-bashing was, of course, a collosal waste of energy and time, but I cannot say that it deeply affected day-to-day life at the University. What it did was to enhance a whole range of attitudes that were there all along. Young scholars boasted of not being intellectuals. Among many no conversation was tolerated except sports and snobbish gossip. A kind of unappetizing dirty socks and locker room humor and false and ostentatious masculinity were vaunted. With it came an odd gentility: no one used four letter words and being appropriately dressed, in an inconspicuous Oxford gray Brooks Brothers suit, was supremely important. More damaging was that so many people who should have known better, scorned the poor, the bookish, the unconventional, the brainy, the people who did not resemble the crass and outlandish model of a real American upper-crust he-man whom they had conjured up in their imagination. For any woman of any degree of refinement or intellectuality, this was unappealing company.

To this affected boorishness was added a slavish admiration for the least intelligent, but good-looking, rich, and well connected undergraduates. Their culture was in many respects one of protected juvenile delinquency. Harvard undergraduates were easily forgiven the misery they inflicted on the rest of Cambridge. High jinx included breaking street lights and unrailing trolley cars. Conspicuous drunkenness on the streets was normal on week-ends. One of the nastiest riots I ever saw, long before the radical sit-ins, was an undergraduate rampage set off by the decision to have English rather than Latin diplomas. Several tutors were physically assaulted and injured. All this was seen as high spirits, and secretly admired. Nor were these private school products particularly well prepared. Few could put a grammatical English sentence together, and if they knew a foreign language, they hid it well.

The real ideal of many teachers at Harvard in the 1950s was the gentleman C-er. He would, we were told, govern us and feed us, and we ought to cherish him, rather than the studious youth who would never amount to anything socially significant. There was, of course, a great deal of self-hatred in all this, which I was far too immature to understand at the time. For these demands for overt conformity were quite repressive. Harvard in the 1950s was full of people who were ashamed of their parents’ social standing, as well as of their own condition. The place had too many closet Jews and closet gays and provincials who were obsessed with their inferiority to the “real thing,” which was some mythical Harvard aristocracy, invented to no good purpose whatever. What was so appalling was that all of this was so unnecessary, so out of keeping with America’s public philosophy. It was also a bizarre refusal to think through the real meaning of the Second World War.

On which note, I will sign off. But do go and read that Shklar essay if you have any interest in these things....

The Mutter Museum in Philadelphia

lauded (again) by the Times. It's a very decent little essay by David Carr; and if you haven't seen the museum, you're missing out, it's really a must-see. . . (Here's the page for a special exhibit on conjoined twins. But the pictures are pretty subdued, you have to go to the museum to see the full extent of the stuff they have there.)

Sherlock Holmes on acid

I am absolutely delighted by the novel I've just finished reading,
The Riddle of the Traveling Skull by Harry Stephen Keeler. I was about 98% sure I was going to love it--what's not to love about a book that comes with enthusiastic recommendations from Neil Gaiman, Ed Park (Ed's a passionate Keeler devotee, here's his post-Katrina NOLA/Keeler post at the Dizzies) and Paul Collins?

Mr. Collins is the proprietor of The Collins Library, which has brought the novel back into print; he clearly has an obsession with skulls, he is also the author of the excellently bone-laden The Trouble with Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine (here's my review of it for the Voice, it's also a great read).

And I loved The Riddle of the Traveling Skull! What it really comes down to is the style, the sense of language here is amazing and there's a kind of playful density of references and ideas and words that makes it extremely enjoyable reading, barely dated at all.

There’s a lot of the weird race stuff that you get in American fiction from the 1930s, yes, and yet the potential offensiveness of the racial stereotyping is for me defused by the sheer dementedness of Keeler’s imagination (so that, for instance, the “moron” negro Sandy MacDougall—and the narrator is quite attentive to the bizarre aspects of this terminology—who works as a servant in the narrator’s boarding house also happens to be the winner of “the $1000 jig-saw contest at the Coliseum, putting together a 5000-piece jig-saw puzzle in eight hours forty-one minutes and sixteen seconds quicker time than the nearest of forty-one other contestants” and is thus conveniently able to piece together the scraps of typing paper the narrator finds wadded up inside the Traveling Skull of the title, providing an invaluable clue).

The book’s written in superb first-person narration, this voice is unbeatably good—we’ve got great phrases (“two shakes of a lamblet’s tail,” “24-carat thoroughbred”) and also pungent and funny one-liners (and a remarkably appealing use of the dash to signal thinking, I'm fond of dashes myself and was making particular mental notes as to how Keeler uses them):

Canada is as much of a refuge for you as—as a Wisconsin lumber camp is for a lost virgin.

My forehead was so corrugated, as I could sense by feeling alone, that an Eskimo’s fur coat, sprinkled with nothing but Lux, could have been washed on it.

Either as a detective I was a good sofa-pillow crocheter, or else I was playing in the identical luck of the piccolo player when the eccentric millionaire filled up the instruments of each member of the German band with $5 gold pieces.

But it’s in the crazed paragraph-length units that Keeler really gets going. Check these two examples out (I especially like the second one because of the medical stuff, but you can see the distinctive qualities of his verbal imagination):

“Well, you see, Clay, the rifle!—I shot him with—it was one of twelve special rifles that had been turned out by the Cormington Arms Company of Cormington, Connecticut, in commemoration of the production of their millionth firearm. And all of which were given—not sold—to friends of the president. Their barrels were made of steel fabricated from the very cannon that had fired the last charge of powder at Vicksburg. The stocks were hewed from a piece of wood from the bow of Commodore Perry’s flagship on his first trip to Japan. The time he opened Japan to the world. The front sights—what you call, Clay, the ‘bead’—were cut from the bone penholder of Edward Rutledge, the Charleston, South Carolina, lawyer who was the youngest signer of the Declaration of Independence—and were from the identical pen that had signed that paper. The pen, it seems, had gotten accidentally broken up in some Southern museum—and the Cormington Arms Company had gotten one of the slivers from which to cut these beads.”

“The head—the last of him—as was shown by the notations on the back of the ticket, had been all through the works. The studes in opthalmology had chopped his inferior oblique eye-muscles in two—and pulled his eyeballs partway out, and stitched his superior recti muscles into new places outward on his eyeballs—for cyclophoria. His neck—what there was of it—had been all opened up in goiter excision practice. Some student in the rhinology department had taken out the turbinates in his nose—and the whole rhinology department, judging from the notes, had taken turns finding and irrigating his sphenoid sinuses—the most difficult sinuses in the human head to reach. Or to treat. Studes in the ear department had operated on his ear-drums, and practised sounding his eustachian tubes through his nose. In the surgical-neurology, they had severed most of his facial nerves for tri-facial neuralgia the poor Wyomingite never had had, and never would have: Oh, he’d gone through the works all right. All except brain surgery. He’d escaped that somehow. And he nearly escaped me, too. For when I got around to getting him for myself, the old porter in the cellar was just swinging him, black hair and all, in a shovel, into the crematory. And he cost me all of two shillings!”

Goiter excision practice—isn’t that an amazing phrase?

And my favorite sentence, which makes ABSOLUTELY no sense out of context and barely more in situ, but just strikes me as utterly charming in any case:

I held up that costermonger dummy significantly.

I think there’s a long tradition in English of demented dandyish first-person writing like this: think of DeQuincey and Poe and the more baroque parts of Hawthorne (and the closest analog I could think of for the novel as a whole was the movie The Usual Suspects). Very, very smart and enjoyable novel.

An addendum:

Writing for the New York Sun, Otto Penzler recently called Keeler "the worst writer in the world":

Keeler is to good literature as rectal cancer is to good health. He makes the J.D. Robb novels seem as if they were written by Shakespeare. Given the choice of reading three Keeler novels back to back or being imprisoned in an Iranian jail, you'd need to think about it.

This seems to me completely absurd. On the basis of this novel, at any rate, I'd say that Keeler's a great writer; a wayward and pretty whacked-out plotter, true, but some of us like that, and more importantly a fantastically good stylist with a sharp sense of humor as well as a taste for strangeness. (I ranted fairly recently about Mr. Penzler's tastes and why I do not share them.)

(If you're thinking about buying a copy of the novel, you should; if you're not sure and want to see what you think, you can read the first chapter here.)

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Funniest thing I've seen all week

From the instructions for a book review (due Dec. 31) I'm writing for an academic journal:

Please try to adhere to the deadline we have agreed upon. If your review is more than one year late, I will assume that you are no longer interested in reviewing the book.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Oh, this book about reindeer

sounds absolutely amazing: it's The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia by Piers Vitebsky. That is a book I must get at once, and it even counts as research for the (long-postponed) sequel to Dynamite No. 1. Did you know that reindeer can run at a speed of 20 to 30 miles an hour for hours on end?

The four-things meme

First seen at About Last Night.

Four jobs you've had in your life: grill cook (you had to wash the smell of cheesesteaks out of your hair afterwards, and there was no point even thinking about wearing the pale-blue polo shirt again the next day without putting it in the laundry first); secretary; dorm crew (basically, cleaning toilets, and I would still rather clean something really dirty--dramatic results!--than give a more-or-less clean apartment the vacuum-and-mop once-over); bartender (catering only, with the occasional club/party-type gig, and even at the time I never really knew how to mix drinks properly)

Four movies you could watch over and over: The Shining; Blade Runner; Kind Hearts and Coronets; Brazil

Four places you've lived: Philadelphia, PA; Cambridge, MA; New Haven, CT; New York, NY (geographically unadventurous)

Four TV shows you love to watch: ER; Medium (I have a minor obsession with Patricia Arquette's haircut, in fact the other day I realized I'm basically trying to grow my hair back in exactly like that, fortunately it is well within the bounds of genetic possibility and the hairdresser's art); The Simpsons; Meet the Press (just joking! I have never seen a single Meet the Press; let's have Star Trek: Next Generation as the fourth instead)

Four places you've been on vacation: Moscow; Tallinn; Stockholm; Copenhagen (geographically unadventurous part II, or rather northern-Europe-fixated--I am very excited, my brother got me the D'Aulaires Norse Myths book for Xmas)

Four websites you visit daily: Maud Newton; Sarah Weinman; the Chronicle of Higher Education; Docbrite

Four of your favorite foods: sushi; seedless grapes; Danish blue cheese; anchovies

Four places you'd rather be: my real apartment on Riverside Drive in New York; amidst the PR call-number shelves of Widener Library; the zoo; the Ice Hotel

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Manstealing for Fat Girls

I've just finished reading Manstealing for Fat Girls, an addictively readable young-adult novel by Michelle Embree. I absolutely LOVED it, it's fantastically good. The first-person voice is amazing--the narrator's funny and warm and entirely persuasive and completely likeable--and it's got the right kind of grotesquerie to really conjure up the memory of life as a young person. Lots of funny parts, lots of really moving ones.

The book's published by Soft Skull (who also published my first novel); it's got the best of the small-press vibe, of course (lots of teenage lesbians and drug use and good music), but it also has that appeal that makes you feel like you are reading a book that MILLIONS OF PEOPLE would and should enjoy. It's funny, I was talking about this last week with
Sarah Weinman, wishing that someone would have told me at the time as I was finishing Heredity that it was a great small-press book and that I should really stop wasting my time trying to find an agent and a big book deal and stuff and go directly to independent presses and then get myself an agent once I actually was in line for a contract. All I wanted was for it to get published, but the difference between an agent and a teacher (I am a teacher through and through, could never be an agent) is that the agent says "Sorry, you're a great writer, send me your next project, but I just didn't fall in love with this one" and the teacher sits you down and says "This is great, it's pretty much finished, but let me explain to you realistically what your prospects are for it and what you should do next." I am actually a horrifyingly pragmatic advice-giver in my job, mostly because I am so often seized with the sense of how much more I understand now than I did ten years ago about how to get things to work right. It's partly just that I am bossy, of course, and afflicted by a passion for helping (it's potentially rather annoying, but on the whole useful), but it's also true that there are a lot of things that everyone knows and nobody says. And there are some things you really do have to learn for yourself (like that the academic job market is pretty direly awful) but there are others that it would have been extremely useful to hear at the time.

Anyway, thanks to Richard for sending me this book and also for publishing my novel in the first place. And here's the synopsis of Manstealing for Fat Girls, if it sounds at all your kind of thing I assure you that it is even better than it sounds:

Sixteen year old Angie is called "Lezzylard" by her classmates. Her best friend Shelby is an out dyke--in a working class suburb of St. Louis in the 1980s--while the third member of their trio can't shoplift because security guards always fixate on her one enormous breast. Angie's mother is marrying a man with a sleazy mustache who puts up NASCAR posters in the living room while her friend Inez, the school's pot-dealer and sometime beer whore, stands outside convenience stories, pretending to talk on payphones in order to yell things like, "I'm not having your RAPE BABY, DAD! Give me the money for an abortion or I'm gonna have you KILLED!" Inez, it turns out, is also on a diet.

Angie is teased by classmates, than platonically seduced by the prettiest girl in school, who is anorexic and wants to make imaginary grocery lists with her. To top it off, she told fat-baiting Mindy Overton to "just puke up your lunch and kill yourself already," prompting the school's most brutal popular kids to decide she needs to be taken down a notch. Just how is Angie supposed to get though the next two months?

Complete with acid dealing high schoolers and characters obsessed with FDS "pussy deodorant," Manstealing for Fat Girls takes Mean Girls and makes it scarier and funnier, more political and closer to the bone.

Robert Sapolsky is one of my favorite writers

and he's got an amazing essay called "A Natural History of Peace" up at Foreign Affairs. (A publication that has just been barraging me at home and at work with invitations to subscribe--I laughed and threw them in the trash, those are the articles I always skip in the New York Review of Books because I am ridiculously frivolous--perhaps I must reconsider if they publish things like this often.)

To some extent, the age-old 'nature versus nurture' debate is silly. The action of genes is completely intertwined with the environment in which they function; in a sense, it is pointless to even discuss what gene X does, and we should consider instead only what gene X does in environment Y. Nonetheless, if one had to predict the behavior of some organism on the basis of only one fact, one might still want to know whether the most useful fact would be about genetics or about the environment.

The first two studies to show that primates were somewhat independent from their 'natures' involved a classic technique in behavioral genetics called cross-fostering. Suppose some animal has engaged in a particular behavior for generations -- call it behavior A. We want to know if that behavior is due to shared genes or to a multigenerationally shared environment. Researchers try to answer the question by cross-fostering the animal, that is, switching the animal's mother at birth so that she is raised by one with behavior B, and then watching to see which behavior the animal displays when she grows up. One problem with this approach is that an animal's environment does not begin at birth -- a fetus shares a very intimate environment with its mother, namely the body's circulation, chock-full of hormones and nutrients that can cause lifelong changes in brain function and behavior. Therefore, the approach can be applied only asymmetrically: if a behavior persists in a new environment, one cannot conclude that genes are the cause, but if a behavior changes in a new environment, then one can conclude that genes are not the cause. This is where the two studies come in.

In the early 1970s, a highly respected primatologist named Hans Kummer was working in Ethiopia, in a region containing two species of baboons with markedly different social systems. Savanna baboons live in large troops, with plenty of adult females and males. Hamadryas baboons, in contrast, have a more complex, multilevel society. Because they live in a much harsher, drier region, hamadryas have a distinctive ecological problem. Some resources are singular and scarce -- like a rare watering hole or a good cliff face to sleep on at night in order to evade predators -- and large numbers of animals are likely to want to share them. Other resources, such as the vegetation they eat, are sparse and widely dispersed, requiring animals to function in small, separate groups. As a result, hamadryas have evolved a "harem" structure -- a single adult male surrounded by a handful of adult females and their children -- with large numbers of discrete harems converging, peacefully, for short periods at the occasional desirable watering hole or cliff face.

Kummer conducted a simple experiment, trapping an adult female savanna baboon and releasing her into a hamadryas troop and trapping an adult female hamadryas and releasing her into a savanna troop. Among hamadryas, if a male threatens a female, it is almost certainly this brute who dominates the harem, and the only way for the female to avoid injury is to approach him -- i.e., return to the fold. But among savanna baboons, if a male threatens a female, the way for her to avoid injury is to run away. In Kummer's experiment, the females who were dropped in among a different species initially carried out their species-typical behavior, a major faux pas in the new neighborhood. But gradually, they assimilated the new rules. How long did this learning take? About an hour. In other words, millennia of genetic differences separating the two species, a lifetime of experience with a crucial social rule for each female, and a miniscule amount of time to reverse course completely.

The second experiment was set up by de Waal and his student Denise Johanowicz in the early 1990s, working with two macaque monkey species. By any human standards, male rhesus macaques are unappealing animals. Their hierarchies are rigid, those at the top seize a disproportionate share of the spoils, they enforce this inequity with ferocious aggression, and they rarely reconcile after fights. Male stump tail macaques, in contrast, which share almost all of their genes with their rhesus macaque cousins, display much less aggression, more affiliative behaviors, looser hierarchies, and more egalitarianism.

Working with captive primates, de Waal and Johanowicz created a mixed-sex social group of juvenile macaques, combining rhesus and stump tails together. Remarkably, instead of the rhesus macaques bullying the stump tails, over the course of a few months, the rhesus males adopted the stump tails' social style, eventually even matching the stump tails' high rates of reconciliatory behavior. It so happens, moreover, that stump tails and rhesus macaques use different gestures when reconciling. The rhesus macaques in the study did not start using the stump tails' reconciliatory gestures, but rather increased the incidence of their own species-typical gestures. In other words, they were not merely imitating the stump tails' behavior; they were incorporating the concept of frequent reconciliation into their own social practices. When the newly warm-and-fuzzy rhesus macaques were returned to a larger, all-rhesus group, finally, their new behavioral style persisted.

Thanks to Lynn for the link.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Of Tesla coils and transit strikes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 19, 2005

Things I really must do before I die

I originally wrote this piece in July 2000. It was my last summer in New Haven before taking up my current job at Columbia, I was teaching a writing class in creative non-fiction and I asked my students to write autobiographical lists on the model of Georges Perec’s extraordinary “Things I Really Must Do Before I Die” (it’s in the collection Species of Spaces, which I don’t have here with me but can highly recommend; I believe "Things..." was a radio broadcast Perec did in 1981, only a year or so before he died of lung cancer, and part of the painfulness and poignancy of the piece is knowing that he isn’t going to get to do most of these things at all).

I’m posting my own list now for your amusement while I’m away. I probably won’t post again until Dec. 27, unless I manage to hijack a computer in New York or Philadelphia. I have resisted the temptation to change some of the items on the list—think of it as a self-portrait circa 2000—but will confess that I’ve done minor copy-editing here and there. I’ve also glossed several points in notes at the end.

(I strongly recommend this as a writing exercise. Just take the title and start writing; you can use whatever headings you want to structure the list, and you will probably get quite funny results with little effort. Be as concrete as possible.)

Things I really must do before I die

There are some things I should really learn how to do before I die, things it’s ridiculous I can’t do already:

1. Learn to drive
2. Learn how to snap my fingers

There are also self-improvement projects that I am unlikely to undertake but often think about, projects that involve upgrading skills I already have:

3. Improve my Russian
4. Relearn the oboe (including making decent reeds)
5. Run a marathon
6. Learn to play squash

While the previous items are all at least vaguely feasible, I also sometimes think about self-improvement projects so improbable that they verge on the completely impossible (James Bond-style):

7. Pilot light aircraft
8. Speak fluent Japanese
9. Become a martial-arts expert

Alternate professions about which I fantasize:

10. Epidemiologist
11. Neurologist
12. Hairdresser
13. Pastry chef

Sights I would like to see:

14. A real armadillo crossing a highway in the Southwest (with desert cactus in the background)
15. Monkeys climbing around outside the window of the house where I’m staying (maybe in Columbo, Sri Lanka or Durban, South Africa)
16. The Winter Palace in St. Petersburg

Conceptually appealing but practically off-putting travel projects:

17. Taking the Trans-Siberian Railway from Russia to China
18. Following the old Silk Road
19. Riding up the Amazon on a boat and seeing a Mozart opera in the old opera-house at Manaus
20. Traveling to Gombe Park in Tanzania and spending six months observing chimpanzees in the wild

Things I have done in the past but have lost the nerve to continue doing:

21. Dye my hair green
22. Drugs

Things I would like to be able to make, build or draw:

23. Perfect crème brulée
24. Professional-looking sushi
25. Houses
26. Mechanical drawings and blueprints

I would like to know what the following places are like:

27. The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta
28. The offices where New York homicide detectives work
29. Death Row

There are people who I would like to meet and who I also have some chance of meeting because they are only moderately famous:

30. Lou Reed

(Technically, I did meet Lou Reed, in 1991; my then boyfriend was working at a shabby computer store on 8th St. and called me up to say that Lou Reed was in the store. He told me to come over right away; I was convinced he was pulling my leg, since Lou Reed was so much the number-one-person on my list of famous people I’d like to meet; finally I ran over to the store and there was Lou Reed, buying a new computer monitor. Somewhere I still probably have the credit card receipt with his signature on it.)

31. Jonathan Richman
32. Robyn Hitchcock

There are some people I will never meet because they are too famous:

33. Dennis Hopper

There are also people (coincidentally, all writers) I will never meet because they are dead:

34. Anthony Burgess
35. Chester Himes
36. Derek Raymond

(But since the last two basically drank themselves to death, it might be that they would have behaved badly in the event of an actual meeting. Coincidentally they both also lived in France.)

I have a long list of writing projects which I find especially appealing:

37. A hard-boiled detective novel
38. The screenplay for a violent and nihilistic cop thriller
39. An opera libretto
40. A best-seller

There are certain brand-name consumer items that I will never buy myself but that my wealthy fictional alter-ego might own:

41. A Fendi baguette
42. An Issey Miyake shirt
43. Manolo Blahnik shoes
44. A very expensive watch (but not a Rolex Oyster)
45. One of those fancy-looking metal briefcases that mobsters in the movies wear shackled to their wrists

My dream apartment would have the following features (I never want to live in a house):

46. Medical woodcuts by Vesalius
47. Mechanically ingenious and beautifully designed lighting fixtures
48. A long rectangular room with hardwood floors, high ceilings and no furniture, with a narrow bench running around all four sides of the room like an old-fashioned railway-station waiting-room
49. A Fabergé egg in a lit display case
50. A row of shower-stalls in an industrial-style bathroom

CODA. A few thoughts on the list. On the one hand, I’m very much the same person who wrote it, with the proviso that graduate school in New Haven made me more materialistic and also more domestic in my fantasies than I would be now—I hereby disclaim any desire to make perfect crème brulée or to own any of the brand-name consumer items listed as 41.-45. (with the possible exceptions of the Issey Miyake shirt and the briefcase).

On the other hand, my present-day life is far more satisfying than my graduate-school life, so in general I think much less than I did then about things I want to do in the future; these days, in other words, I would be much less likely to write such a list in the first place.

That said, some more specific glosses:

1.-2. Still haven’t learned to drive. Still haven’t learned how to snap my fingers.

5. Have decided I will never run a marathon; I don’t like running, and it makes my knees hurt. However I am thinking about taking up kickboxing and possibly some more esoteric martial art as well (see 9.).

Addendum to “Sights I would like to see”: the Ice Hotel in Swedish Lapland. Seriously, I’m going to DIE of disappointment if I don’t get to see this in the next few years. Also I did go to St. Petersburg a month after I wrote the original list, and I did see the Winter Palace, but only from the outside. I surprised myself during that trip by falling in love with Moscow rather than St. Petersburg.

23. See disclaimer above. And I can’t really say I care so much any more about the sushi or the blueprints, either. But I would still like to be able to build houses (and particularly to know how to do plumbing and electrical work, if only for the cause of gender equity, since my brothers do all this kind of stuff extremely well and I feel I have neglected my genetic potential in a way that unhappily corresponds with my having two X chromosomes).

27. At the wedding of my friends E. and J. I met E.’s brother’s boyfriend who works at the CDC. Apparently a lot of novelists and screenwriters hang around there soaking up local color; he said I could come along and check the place out any time I wanted, and that he would be happy to show me around. (I think the lesson of this is that I should find a NYC homicide detective who’s willing to let me visit on the job. Most people are surprisingly hospitable to the idea of a writer wanting to learn more about their work life, even if you’re not a well-known novelist or whatever.)

31.-32. Was I really listening to so much Jonathan Richman and Robyn Hitchcock in 2000?!? I would have thought that was more like 1988. Strange—some kind of regression?

33. Dennis Hopper seems less famous to me now than he did to my year-2000 graduate-student self. However while it now seems to me marginally more likely that I might meet him, I still think it would be unlikely to lead to interesting or satisfying conversation. (I watched one episode of that bizarre Pentagon E-Ring show this fall on the strength of the Hopper appeal: one was enough, though I found the show’s peculiar emphasis on bureaucratic decision-making rather appealing.)

36. I am consoled for not being able to meet Derek Raymond by having hung out with the altogether lovely and equally brilliant Ken Bruen.

46., 48. My dream-apartment aesthetic remains the same, only I wouldn’t want any art. No Vesalius, no Fabergé, no photographs by Andreas Gursky (not on this list, but an enthusiasm of the following year when I got this book). No art. Also, for the record, the dream bathroom is like a more insane and grandiose version of the absolutely beautiful bathroom in my friend T.’s apartment in the former Ex-Lax Building on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.

So I have a piece

of really extraordinarily good news: I have been chosen to receive one of the first ten annual Distinguished Faculty Awards at Columbia. I've known about this for a while, but seeing the public announcement really rubs it in (I'm not going to paste in the citation, it is embarrassingly lavish and certainly more than I deserve).

I am especially moved because of the award's emphasis on teaching. I really, really love everything to do with reading and writing and thinking about things (anyone who reads this blog regularly will have gathered that), but there is no doubt that the part of my life that's been both the most rewarding and the most ethically acceptable (reading and writing are delightfully decadent and self-pleasing rather than really public-spirited) is the teaching. I have been so fortunate in my students, there is no way even to begin to do justice to them: Columbia has been a really excellent home to me these last five years, and I want to take this occasion to thank all of the students who have particularly made that so much the case.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Reading for pleasure

The other night I read a fascinating study called Lost in a Book: The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure by Victor Nell. It's not a perfect book, it's got lots of rather skimmable data-tables and such, and yet how can you resist a book whose introduction is titled “The Insatiable Appetite”? It begins with these sentences:

Reading for pleasure is an extraordinary activity. The black squiggles on the white page are as still as the grave, colorless as the moonlit desert; but they give the skilled reader a pleasure as acute as the touch of a loved body, as rousing, colorful and transfiguring as anything out there in the real world. And yet, the more stirring the book the quieter the reader; pleasure reading breeds a concentration so effortless that the absorbed reader of fiction (transported by the book to some other place, and shielded by it from distractions), who is so often reviled as an escapist and denounced as the victim of a vice as pernicious as tippling in the morning[,] should instead be the envy of every student and every teacher.

Another interesting passage, a bit heavier this time on the sociological jargon (of course, the strange thing about reading a book like this--and presumably about writing it as well, you can see Nell in the grip of his own double identity--is that you're uneasily aware that you are in a position corresponding more closely to research subject than to principal investigator):

If ludic readers see themselves as depraved, like cigarette smokers or habitual masturbators, they will be compelled to deal with the resulting discomfort by a variety of strategies. And the nature and quality of the resolution readers find for the dissonance they experience will necessarily affect the rewards they derive from their reading, since the reinforcements to be derived from such socially sanctioned activities as painting in oils and attending the opera are likely to have a very different subjective quality than those gained from voyeurism or overeating.

He covers a lot of interesting topics—the effects of “protestant ethic” values on patterns of library purchasing, the difference between absorption and enchantment—and there’s a particularly good chapter on “The Sovereignty of the Reading Experience” (“Reading’s airy bamboo-and-paper house is a marvelously safe place, a protection from many kinds of earthquake: this fragile dwelling allows readers to enjoy a kind of sovereignty over their lives and their worlds”). Perhaps strangest of all, it vividly and somewhat inadvertently recreates aspects of the cultural milieu in which the studies were actually conducted, South Africa in 1977.

At one point Nell provides a really great quotation from Somerset Maugham, I'm sure I've read this before but it's nice to have it to hand:

Some people read for instruction, which is praiseworthy, and some for pleasure, which is innocent, but not a few read from habit, and I suppose that this is neither innocent nor praiseworthy. Of that lamentable company am I. Conversation after a time bores me, games tire me, and my own thoughts, which we are told are the unfailing resource of a sensible man, have a tendency to run dry. Then I fly to my book as the opium-smoker to his pipe. I would sooner read the catalogue of the Army and Navy Store or Bradshaw’s Guide than nothing at all, and indeed I have spent many delightful hours over both these works. . . . Of course to read in this way is as reprehensible as doping, and I never cease to wonder at the impertinence of great readers who, because they are such, look down on the illiterate. . . . like the dope-fiend who cannot move from place to place without taking with him a plentiful supply of his deadly balm, I never venture far without a sufficiency of reading matter.

And here’s my favorite passage of Nell’s, the one that most evokes the pleasures but also the frustrations of this book (I am making a mental note of the phrase “Frustration Index," by the way, which seems to me to be rich with possibilities):

The most direct probe of the intensity of our ludic readers’ needs to escape from unpleasant consciousness is Question 3a in the Reading Habits Questionnaire (scored in chapter 5 as part of the Frustration Index); namely, how would one feel to discover, alone in a strange hotel, that one had nothing to read. This question elicited a range of replies from the 129 students readily scored in terms of their affective tone and intensity. These dimensions are even more clearly discerned in the response of the 28 ludic readers who replied to this question. In approximate sequence of intensity, with headings selected on intuitive grounds to describe the tone of the response, these 28 replies are set out below (if more than one reader made a given response the number who did so is indicated in parenthesis):

No emotion: nothing
Displeasure: restless (2), frustrated (5), annoyed, peeved, a bit hassled
Anger: bloody annoyed
Agitated: manic, bothered, a little upset, let down, disappointed, bad, bitterly disappointed terrible
Anxiety: lost (2), quite lost, lost and miserable, really miserable, desolate!, awful/dispossessed, desperate

(My answer: Totally freaked out! Which would presumably come under "agitated"....)

Reading this made me slightly self-conscious as I consumed the latest light reading. First, a bona-fide enjoyable but undoubtedly quite trashy novel, the kind of thing I might have brought with me to Nell's reading lab if I was one of his subjects ("Please come to the first laboratory session with THREE English-language fiction books you have not read before and that you are enjoying very much. . . . If you read a lot of detectives or Westerns, bring three of them with you--NOT a tome on Minoan civilisation or a novel you've been trying to read for years"!), Phoenix and Ashes by Mercedes Lackey. Then a much higher-quality kind of light reading, a very good young adult novel called Looking for Alaska by John Green. Green's got an amazing gift for characterization, you really can't believe how vividly he brings the four main characters here to life; the first-person voice is really excellent as well, and I love books that are set in schools. Entrancement rather than mere absorption, at any rate, in both cases.

Oh, and one more related link on the whole reading-for-pleasure thing, Clive James's literary education in sludge fiction in the TLS. (Link thanks to Book World/MetaxuCafe.) I don't think I'm going to adopt the phrase "sludge fiction" anytime soon, though; it lacks the celebratory quality of "trashy novels," my preferred term.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Fifteen things about books

1. My favorite novel is Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows. My other favorite novel is James Baldwin's Just Above My Head.

2. My favorite nineteenth-century English novelists are Austen and Dickens.

3. In first grade I went to a fairly horrible school (I had read every book in the classroom within the first few days of school in September; I was constantly in the nurse’s office with psychosomatic stomach-aches; I was treated as a kind of a prodigy and the evil teacher used to drag me down the hall to her sister’s third-grade classroom and have me read out loud to the third-graders as a freak of nature). However I still remember how excited I was when a pair of Published Authors visited the school; their names were Jane Flory and Carolyn Croll, and I am almost certain that the two books I bought (with money wheedled from my mother) were The Golden Venture and We'll Have a Friend For Lunch. (Both of which seemed a little babyish to me but this was entirely made up for by how exciting it was that I'd met the people who actually wrote them. In the gym! At my school! And they signed the book for me!)

4. When I was four or five, my grandmother was so worried about my obsessive reading habit that she thought my mother should take me to the doctor.

5. When I’m sick, I read a lot of novels, some of which are then strongly associated with that feverish hallucinatory state of having a bad cold. Examples: fourth or fifth grade, a really evil cold, lying in bed eating oranges and potato chips and devouring Robert Heinlein's Friday, a mass-market paperback from the public library whose extremely trashy cover featured the title character in a partially unzipped jumpsuit (the Wikipedia entry gives that cover and points out that though she is depicted as white, Heinlein describes Friday as dark-skinned early in the book); my second or third year in my current job at Columbia, another really evil cold, staggering to the public library as the illness was coming on so that I wouldn’t be stranded without anything to read, then devouring Philip Pullman's The Subtle Knife (which I had found on one of the young-adult carousels upstairs at the newly renovated Morningside Branch) and going slightly crazy that I didn’t have the book that came before it.

6. When I was in seventh grade, my mother let me take the day off school to go to a Dick Francis book signing (The Danger, 1983).

7. Some times and places (especially ones that were strange, disorienting or otherwise unsettled) are most vividly recalled to me by way of a book I discovered at the same time: I remember reading Caryl Phillips' Crossing the River during my first few weeks in New Haven in late summer 1994, alone in a new apartment and eagerly but also anxiously waiting for grad school to start, with only my brand-new public library membership (getting a library card is always the first thing I do in a new place) to tide me over till school began; or absolutely immersing myself in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus during my first Christmas vacation back at my parents’ house after going away to college. I’d read it earlier in the semester and fallen completely in love with it, and I spent several days of that holiday obsessively reading back through it (in the middle of the night, of course) and typing up a set of notes on one of those 1980s-style Brother word-processors. (Let us just say now—anyone reading this who knew me at the time will back me up on this—that I was a completely insane seventeen-year-old, insane enough that I was widely known as Crazy Jenny to differentiate me from my roommate Jenny Gibbs, and that if you imagine me reading Deleuze and listening to the Velvet Underground and Nico and wearing black lipstick and generally behaving like an utterly lunatic seventeen-year-old you will understand why I so fervently say that being in my thirties is infinitely preferable to any earlier stage of life. I have no nostalgia whatsoever for college, partly because I got to keep all the good parts—the friends, the books, the music, the nocturnal lifestyle, the campus setting—and ditch all of the awful parts—having to be seventeen, eighteen, nineteen and twenty; not having any money or a room to myself; eating dining-hall food.)

8. Since I’m constitutionally reclusive, I eat roughly 95% of all meals by myself, and I really can’t eat without reading at the same time: even if I’m starving, I have to dig out something to read first.

9. When I was sixteen, I had a boyfriend who I still sometimes jokingly describe as the great love of my life. For Christmas that year (it was 1987) he gave me a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenanceas a present. After he was murdered in 1998, his father gave me Anton’s own copy of the book to remember him by (it was the original version of this edition), plus a small wire model of a motorcycle. Anton's friends made a memorial website for him; Anton was also the person who introduced me to the novels of Robert Ludlum (he was a passionate fan).

10. My junior year of high school I spent the month of January (we all got the month off for an independent “junior project”) writing an (incomplete) faux-Jacobean play, inspired partly by my obsession with Webster et al. but also written in the spirit of The Crying of Lot 49 and a lovely remark in the early pages of Gertrude Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. I don't have the book with me, but the Stein passage goes along the lines of "When Gertrude Stein was eight years old she decided to write an Elizabethan tragedy. She wrote the first stage direction, it said 'Enter courtiers, making witty remarks.' Then she couldn't think of any witty remarks so she went and had supper instead." (My courtiers didn’t make witty remarks either.)

(My advisor for this project was one of the best teachers I have ever had; her name was Deborah Dempsey and she is the person who taught me to become a serious reader of poetry [the school had spring elective seminars in a program called Essentially English, and I remember taking Deborah's class on--I'm not sure this is exactly right--Theodore Roethke, Adrienne Rich and Elizabeth Bishop the spring I was thirteen and on Yeats, Eliot and Auden the next year when I was fourteen]. The other thing I always remember her saying was about journalism: she said that as a young person who was a good writer, she was always being told by well-intentioned adults that she should become a journalist, but that you shouldn’t become a journalist because of good writing--though journalists are often excellent writers as well--but because you are driven by curiosity and an obsessive desire to find things out.)

11. The book I read several years ago that inspired me with a sense of fury that nobody had told me to read it before, since it is so much exactly the kind of thing I love and need to read in order to work out the things I think about in my academic writing: John Passmore, The Perfectibility of Man.

12. My favorite Austen novel as a child: Pride and Prejudice. My favorite Austen novel as a college student: Sense and Sensibility. My favorite Austen novel as a graduate student: Mansfield Park. My favorite Austen novel as an assistant professor: Emma. (The underlying logic of the preferences: childhood is aligned with the fairy-tale symmetries of Pride and Prejudice; adolescence with the novel of unhappiness and miserably unrequited love and general emotional disarray; graduate school with the potent abjectness of the dependent relative Fanny Price; assistant-professordom with a propensity for well-intentioned meddling on behalf of others (in my case, more oriented towards professional than romantic match-making) which makes me far more forgiving of Emma than I used to be.

13. Books I would love to have written and that seem to me to share fundamental affinities with the books I actually write: Gitta Sereny’s biography of Albert Speer; Robin McKinley’s Sunshine; Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age; Sissela Bok’s Lying; the complete novels of Dick Francis.

14. Books I love but could not imagine having written myself: Richard Powers, The Time of Our Singing; Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude; Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons.

15. Essay I have recently been tempted to describe and/or quote to friends: Adam Phillips, "Sameness is All," in Promises, Promises. This is Phillips on a male teenage patient who fantasizes about having a girlfriend who will be his clone: “The fantasy of the clone girlfriend--not exactly a rarity--was for this boy an all-purpose magical solution. A way of preempting what you do about, or with, the parts of yourself that have nothing 'in common' with an object of desire. What is of interest is that the (narcissistic) solution of creating absolute sameness--the clone--unconsciously kills desire. The fantasy of cloning a girlfriend is a fantasy of not needing a girlfriend. The exact replication of the self merely replicates the problem."

Other good things in the Guardian

Maya Jaggi on Ursula K. LeGuin and her school for wizards; James Campbell remembers interviewing John Fowles as a student in the early 70s.

Harold Bloom

has a wonderful political rant up at the Guardian (this is excellent Bloom, Bloom at his most Lear-like and passionate):

What defines America? 'Democracy' is a ruined word, because of its misuse in the American political rhetoric of our moment. If Hamlet and Don Quixote, between them, define the European self, then Captain Ahab and 'Walt Whitman' (the persona, not the man) suggest a very different self from the European. Ahab is Shakespearean, Miltonic, even Byronic-Shelleyan, but his monomaniacal quest is his own, and reacts against the Emersonian self, just as Melville's beloved Hawthorne recoiled also. Whitman, a more positive Emersonian, affirms what the Sage of Concord called self-reliance, the authentic American religion rather than its Bushian parodies. Though he possesses a Yale BA and honorary doctorate, our president is semi-literate at best. He once boasted of never having read a book through, even at Yale. Henry James was affronted when he met President Theodore Roosevelt; what could he have made of George W Bush?

James Hynes reviews the NYRB reissue of 'D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths'

(originally published as 'Norse Gods and Giants') in this Sunday's NYTBR. I loved this book when I was little, I had it sort of permanently checked out from the school library (probably when I was in third grade or so?) & brought it in every week for ritual renewal (not, you know, the kind that they do in these stories, which involve blood sacrifice and people hanging from trees and stuff; just the kind involving a date-stamp and an inkpad).

I can't wait to get my hands on a copy of this new edition; and the Times even has Michael Chabon's amazing introduction available as a PDF file.

Oh, and the NYTBR has also FINALLY caught on and provided names of authors and titles along with the title of the piece in the Sunday book review online; the lack of these has been frustrating me for many months now, I do usually read online and there is nothing more annoying than clicking on (oh, I'm too lazy to go and find an example, I'll just make one up) an exciting-sounding review title like "The Naked Ape" and then finding out that instead of it being about either (a) an interesting reconsideration of the legacy of Desmond Morris or (b) a thrilling science-fiction novel about super-intelligent apes or (c) a really good literary novel that treats a human community in the style of Franz de Waal's amazing Chimpanzee Politics (now that's a book to read if you haven't already, especially if you're an academic--taken together with Trollope's Barsetshire novels it gives you everything you need to know about how to thrive in the academy) but instead (oh, I am irredeemably frivolous, but I make no apologies) (z) a mordant reflection by a member of the Bush administration about the failure of the Oslo accords that somehow, loosely, metaphorically, in its reflections on politics and human nature made some Times editor free-associate with the phrase "naked ape." In other words, a book I have no interest in whatsoever.

This Norse myth thing is going to have to console me for the delay in publication of Chabon's novel "The Yiddish Policemen's Union", which was my most anticipated novel of 2006 but is now coming out in winter 2007. (This has been widely blogged about elsewhere.) Here's what Chabon says on his (excellent) website:

HarperCollins had been sort of rushing the thing along, over a steady but polite murmur from the author that perhaps they were moving too quickly. The manuscript was complete. It was not impossible to make the April 11 pub date. But we didn't even have a finished jacket. Many people who were selling and marketing the book hadn't had the opportunity to read it. Everything just felt too rushed and when that sense of undue haste finally caught on at the publishing house, I was able to persuade them to see reason, and wait.

Unfortunately, their Fall list is already set, which means that the book won't come out until Winter 2007. I had hoped never to repeat the seven-year gap between The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys, but now--if you don't count Summerland (for younger readers) or The Final Solution (a novella)--I will have done it again. Oh, well.

The good news, from my point of view, is that I will now be able to take the step that I had been obliged by the accelerated schedule to sacrifice: giving the book to some trusted readers, some of them with special knowledge of the subjects involved. Based on their responses, I will have a last precious opportunity to take one more run through the manuscript.

Of course I am SO disappointed, I already had it in my head that I was going to have this novel to read in a matter of months (it sounds like my perfect ideal novel, in fact the novel I'm finishing now has certain similarities to it); and yet it is of course the most sensible thing to wait. (Congratulations to Chabon for being so smart about this, and to the publishers for accommodating him; it is CRAZY to skip that last stage of having trusted readers check it out and the author take one more run through.)

In fact, I am CONSTANTLY railing against books that seem to have been written by authors bulldozed by the "book-a-year" constraint & not writing up to the level they should; I see how someone can write a great book every year if the books are all fairly similar to each other (Dick Francis!), or fairly short and straightforward in structure (say, first-person crime novels, so that what you learned in making the voice of one of the books can be directly applied to the next one, or a series like Terry Pratchett's Discworld where you do the worldbuilding-and-narrative-voice-type work in a big lump over the first few books, then get to add and amplify and enlarge in a more leisurely way year by year in the following books), but I do not think it's a coincidence that many of my favorite novels are written by novelists who only publish a "big" book every four or five years. A bit of time to sit and digest is the most important part, no? For most writers, at least; some are geniuses & it comes out beautifully the first time, but that is just not true for the rest of us.

(I am really saying this to console myself for how long it's taking to revise MY novel! More thoughts on revision to come; I don't want to write about it until I've finished the latest round of revisions and sent it off, but I've got various thoughts I want to get down, probably in mid-January. One of which is that blogging has turned out to be more immediately relevant to fiction-writing than I had previously thought. What do I mean by that? Well, basically that elements of the first-person voice I write in here--which has a lot in common, needless to say, with the way I would be talking to you if we were speaking face-to-face--turned out to be rather what was needed to get the third-person-limited voice of the novel more powerfully evoking the thoughts and feelings of my main character. But more on this to come, I must finish the work first before I spoil it all by writing about it.)

Oh, and while I guess I do think that The Final Solution is more of a novella than a novel and doesn't EXACTLY count (if we even care about counting, that is), Chabon is being unduly modest in suggesting that you shouldn't count Summerland as one of his major books. It is an AMAZING novel, really perfect in every way, and is actually the first book of his that I read--I loved it and immediately got all the others, which of course I adored as well. It's very much written in the Norse-myth spirit, and I highly recommend it; that and Neil Gaiman's American Gods make the perfect sequels to reading the myths themselves.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Philadelphia noir

I've just read an excellent heist-gone-wrong novel, The Wheelman by Duane Swierczynski. I liked it a lot--it's smart and funny and ludicrously full of plot twists and ABSURDLY violent--and it's set in Philadelphia, too. What more could you possibly want?

(NB I have just corrected my original post, in which I misspelled the author's last name.... because it was MISSPELLED ON THE SPINE OF THE BOOK. This is not good.)

Morbid medical

Swiss money! (Thanks to Mike Doe for the heads-up on the BoingBoing link.)

The blog that's been covering issues surrounding the impending Orhan Pamuk trial

is of course the always excellent Literary Saloon; click on that link for the latest post, which has lots of good links to press coverage, and here's an earlier-in-the-week post with some more links.

And here's Pamuk's own comment in this week's New Yorker. Pamuk says there that he does not think he will end up in jail:

This makes it somewhat embarrassing to see my trial overdramatized. I am only too aware that most of the Istanbul friends from whom I have sought advice have at some point undergone much harsher interrogation and lost many years to court cases and prison sentences just because of a book, just because of something they had written. Living as I do in a country that honors its pashas, saints, and policemen at every opportunity but refuses to honor its writers until they have spent years in courts and in prisons, I cannot say I was surprised to be put on trial. I understand why friends smile and say that I am at last “a real Turkish writer.” But when I uttered the words that landed me in trouble I was not seeking that kind of honor.

Pamuk ends with an incredibly depressing but entirely persuasive coda:

As tomorrow’s novelists prepare to narrate the private lives of the new élites, they are no doubt expecting the West to criticize the limits that their states place on freedom of expression. But these days the lies about the war in Iraq and the reports of secret C.I.A. prisons have so damaged the West’s credibility in Turkey and in other nations that it is more and more difficult for people like me to make the case for true Western democracy in my part of the world.

There's a very decent article

about the whole face transplant thing in the Times today--it includes some good quotations from author/blogger Scott Westerfeld.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

There's a rather fabulously good

interview with Philip Roth up at the Guardian. Read it if you are wishing you were a literary journalist, it made me extremely glad that I do not have to interview scary and irascible authors. . . . In the end, though, the interviewer Martin Krasnik made out really well and got Roth to say some excellent stuff. But you do not envy him the beginning and middle. . . . (Thanks to Bookslut for the link.)

Two excellent books

I've just finished the really superb Jar City by Arndaldur Indridason. I loved this book! I like Henning Mankell a LOT, and this definitely has points in common (I've got a thing for Scandinavia & the Baltic--northern Europe more generally--& I am also fond of police procedurals), yet I'd pick this over Mankell's books any day, there is a delightfully macabre sensibility at work and there's just something more interesting and peculiar going on in Indridason's fiction with regard to the texture of the language and the observations. (And I would have read this book even sooner if I realized that the phrase "Jar City" refers to a room where organs are kept in formalin in glass jars: "All kinds of organs that were sent there from the hospitals. For teaching. In the faculty of medicine. . . . Preserved innards. Hearts, livers and limbs. Brains too." And the novel's all about heredity and genetic disease! Oh, how excellent... I am going to get all his others as soon as possible. I am actually hoping to go to Iceland sometime soonish, that's been true in general for a while but there may be a particularly good excuse to go this winter. More details if it all works out.)

(There's been controversy in the wake of this author recently, his latest won the Golden Dagger award of the British Crimewriters Association and then there was backlash leading to a subsequent ban on foreign-language writers competing for the prize in the future. Here's Sarah Weinman on the topic, and here's another piece which includes a nice quotation from Serpent's Tail publisher Pete Ayrton and also some discussion of the Scottish crime writer Val McDermid's criticisms of the American as opposed to British translation of the Danish writer Peter Hoeg's novel Smilla's Sense of Snow/Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow. That's a novel I LOVED, and as an American reader who read the American but also looked at the British translation--partly due to my horror at the artificiality of the English-English title, which seemed to me much less appealing than the one on the cover of the American translation--I would have to say that I found the American one greatly preferable. And I have a relatively high tolerance for Anglicisms, I was born in England and read a lot of British fiction, but I think the American one read as more neutral and less distracting. In other words I like McDermid's writing a lot but I think she's wrong on this particular count.)

And last night I finished Joyce Carol Oates's latest novel Missing Mom. (Actually both of these novels--Oates and Indridason--were ones I sought out from the library and that then languished on the TBR pile until I got a recall notice & realized I desperately wanted to read them after all.) I have a real thing for Joyce Carol Oates. I loved her books when I was in high school--I think The Bloodsmoor Romance was my particular favorite then, but I like all her stuff--more recently my special favorites have been the completely excellent Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang (a previous link to this book has led to a comically frequent search result for Light Reading that is no doubt scorned by people looking for something to do with the operating system--other frequent search results clearly result from [I'm too lazy to link back to the original posts, plus it seems that it might compound the original search effect in some evil feedback loop] my minor obsessions with the vegetable lamb of Tartary aka the borometz, Meryl Streep's hilarious line "the dingo ate my baby," a Luc Sante essay about Smurfs in French and a NYT piece about a very muscular baby, plus reasonably regular searches to do with my linking to articles about primates--the highland mangabey, for instance, leads you to Light Reading fairly directly....); the historical novel My Heart Laid Bare; and the really excellent young-adult novel Freaky Green Eyes. And I adore the Rosamond Smith ones (and I've got several of the Lauren Kelly ones--I only recently realized this was a new JCO pseudonym--sitting ready to hand). And this latest is really excellent too. I feel there is no better writer on what happens to the young woman whose ordinary life broken into by violence--and of course in practice this is very apropros for almost everybody.

The thing that surprises me, though, is how often JCO is mocked rather than admired. Maybe it has to do with some critical anointing and backlash. But I recently praised her at a dinner party & was startled by the level of irritation expressed by a female contemporary of mine, and this only echoed many previous conversations I've had. Admittedly I'm biased, not only have I loved her books for many years but I also had an amazing personal encounter with her in the spring of 2002 that saved me from extreme discouragement about the prospects of my first novel (which was then rescued at the eleventh hour, but she managed to encourage me at a very dark moment in the pre-publication history of Heredity). But her books are great! What is it that damns her in so many people's eyes? Her prolific publication? Her slightly pulpy sensibility (to me that's a good thing)? I actually really don't get it. I'm going on record here as a huge fan.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

An interesting list

of underrated writers at Syntax of Things (Thanks to Gwenda for the link.)

I heartily endorse the names on the list whose books I know well--I've been reading Poppy Z. Brite and Pete Dexter with great pleasure for years, and I also highly recommend the fiction of Tayari Jones, Paul Park and Geoff Ryman. Of course some of these hardly seem underrated (well, perhaps it's because I'm from Philadelphia, but surely Pete Dexter is incredibly well known?!? My favorite two of his books are "Brotherly Love" and "God's Pocket"); and while I very much like what I've read of Michel Houllebecq and Ryszard Kapuscinski, for instance, I definitely think they both get their share of critical and readerly attention. I am happy to see a few fellow Soft Skull authors make the list (Lydia Millet and Maggie Dubris, both of whom I've got in the TBR pile).

Monday, December 12, 2005

The NYT once again

states the obvious.

I'm not sure what I think

when the New York Times starts covering the publication of the new George R. R. Martin novel. I guess I'm just going to have to buy it and read it--it's true that I've really liked the past volumes, although they are so long that I won't do my usual reread-old-ones-in-anticipation-of-the-latest thing. (I'm slightly horrified to see in this article another reference to the dreaded toy soldiers thing--and if you're not a die-hard lit-blog reader who's already caught up on this, do check out Carrie's amazingly and horrifyingly funny post about nipples in the latest Martin volume.)