Tuesday, January 31, 2006

A strange and unsettling graphic novel

about being a teenager and stigma/outcast things and the nightmares of sexual transformation, Black Hole by Charles Burns. Very good, very creepy (I was reminded of the frightening transformation scenes in Alasdair Gray's Lanark).

(Thanks to Kevin for the recommendation.)

One more for the road

I've just read an interesting and provocative book called So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance by Gabriel Zaid (attractively translated by Natasha Wimmer). My first impression was of it being a clever but also very disagreeable little book. Gradually, though, I was won over (partly as I realized that he’s got a very particular angle that has to do with publishing, really, rather than with writing or reading in themselves; so that the provocative and sometimes annoying remarks he makes about reading and writing are to be seen in that context).

Zaid’s central insight comes around the question of whether we should bemoan or celebrate (he thinks the second) the fact that so many books reach only a small readership:

Books are so cheap that, unlike newspapers, radio, or television, they can be published advertisement-free for a few thousand interested readers. To finance almost any book, it is enough to find three thousand readers willing to pay six hours worth of minimum-wage salary. Naturally, if thirty thousand readers could be reached, it would be possible to lower the price—by half, say. But it isn’t easy to reach thirty thousand readers. Not because the lower price is still too high, but for a reason we prefer to ignore: the majority of titles published are of no interest to thirty thousand people—you couldn’t even give away that many copies.

He’s very interesting on this conundrum, that books may seem more expensive than other media from the consumer’s point of view but that the real cost of reading is time rather than money:

Time is by far the most expensive aspect of reading, excepting time spent in certain circumstances: in transit, ill health, prison, or retirement. In a wealthy economy, time is worth more than things, and it is easier to buy things than to find the time to enjoy them. To purchase books that one will never read is understandable: we think we might read them one day, and in the meantime, they can be shown off to visitors or mentioned in convesation. Reading is a luxury of the poor, the sick, prisoners, retirees, students. As students become young executives with overcrowded schedules, and as their salaries rise, reading (if it is not required) becomes a luxury for them, too.

(You see the style: it’s that rather dandyish grand way of sweeping one’s opinions around the place that I associate in particular with French essayists.)

Another passage that I think the lit-bloggers will find interesting (and which those who know me will see both [a] why I’m struck by and [b] why I find irritating):

A person comes late to a convesation and believes that he can’t follow it, that he needs to be better informed: as if knowledge were something other than conversation itself, as if it were something to be acquired elsewhere first. Friends recommend that he take certain classes, which bore him; that he study handbooks, which bore him; that he read the classics, which also bore him. The truly enlightened thing would be to recommend that he have more confidence in his appetitte for conversation; to tell him that if he is interested in something he doesn’t understand, he should pay more attention, ask questions, reflect, consult dictionaries, manuals, classics, but all in the service of his desire to participate in the ongoing conversation. There is no point in recommending that he try to learn the dictionary from start to finish, systematically, from A to Z. The dictionary, like all study plans, is justified by its use as an aid to convesration, not by its own merits. Naturally, if upon looking up a word he discovers others that interest him, or if upon consulting a classic he finds that his interest goes beyond the matter at hand, he should allow himself to be carried away by curiosity, surprise, astonishment, enjoyment. The desire to follow a conversation that you don’t understand is a healthy sign, not an incidication of lack of preparation. Discipline is good in the service of desire, not in place of desire. Without desire, there is no living culture.

Best trivia fact: the Guinness Book of World Records says that the slowest-selling book in the history of print was “a translation from Coptic to Latin that Oxford University Press sold at a rate of 2.6 copies a year from 1716 to 1907.”

At any rate, it should be clear that it's well worth a look if you're interested in this kind of question.

Two further thoughts:

1. This is the first book I've seen published by Paul Dry Books. It's a physically attractive as well as stylistically appealing little volume, and I'll look forward to seeing more of theirs--I heard about this at the Modern Language Association conference a year ago when I ran into Sarah Dry (who was in my brothers' class when we were all in high school & then went to the same college I did), who was working for the company--I believe her father is the publisher. Go and look at their homepage, though; they've got really cool stuff.

2. Zaid’s very negative here about the possibility for e-readers, but I wonder whether his skepticism doesn’t already seem slightly out-of-date. I am actually dying of curiosity to see & try out one of those Sony Readers. (Imagine how convenient it would be if you could, say, put the images from Gale's Eighteenth-Century Collections Online onto it and read the books that way rather than printing out huge swaths--though even here, since those books online were transferred from microfilm, you'd be losing a lot of quality compared to an actual printed book from the eighteenth century.) I like the idea of being able to go on a trip with five or six books in a lightweight format. But of course it really is different from the music-iPod thing; you don't need all your books with you in the same way you need (well, 'need') all your music.

The thing that I am surprised not to see more people linger on concerns costs. This seems to me the real issue. I was just thinking about it. Admittedly I read a great many more books than most people, but I depend on these sources for them, probably roughly in this order: (1) for the great majority of books, a university research library, including services like BorrowDirect and interlibrary loan (particularly for contemporary fiction of the small-press-from-another-country kind); (2) review copies from friends or publicists or whatever; (3) Amazon, i.e. online bookseller; (4) public library; (5) local independent bookstores (2-4 are all probably roughly equal in proportion); (6) train-station or airport bookstores; (7) used books, either from stores or from, you know, like that guy who has a table of excellent science fiction and crime stuff on Broadway in front of Milano Market. If you count work-related books, which I suppose we must, probably somewhere between 400 and 500 books enter my apartment every year and I read most or all of most or all of them. And let's say that one quarter to one third of those books are pretty new and the others are old, i.e. been out a while or possibly published early twentieth century or eighteenth century or whatever. I don't know how much money I spend on books in a year, probably rather more than $500 but less than $1000 (or am I completely lowballing it? hmm, better not think about that possibility...); it's nowhere near, though, what it would cost if I had to pay for everything I read. Probably 90% of the books I read are from the library.

But how are publishers going to deal with libraries as far as electronic texts go? The thing that makes me wary is that it sounds like a way of jacking up prices. It's as though you said to me, "You can keep on reading all the lovely new novels you want, but they will only be available in a $29.95 deluxe hardcover edition. Six novels: over $200. Isn't it great?" And this is why I cannot see eReaders ever really and effectively superseding the old-fashioned kind of book. Books are great partly because they're free, or virtually free, as we experience them in our lives.

Oh, this has just been a remarkably enjoyable couple hours of blogging, wouldn't be good to get in the habit but for now & then it seems intellectually enriching as well as just enjoyable, like a kind of five-finger-exercise for the brain....

Strong opinions

Various thoughts on the "100 best lines from novels" (according to the American Book Review, that is); a.k.a. life inside Jenny Davidson's brain for half an hour on a snowy Tuesday afternoon in January 2006. Violent disagreement and warm endorsement both welcomed below in the comments.

(Thanks to Kermit for the link.)

1. I hate, hate, hate the obviousness of the super-famous first lines. Predictably, the first and second ones given here are "Call me Ishmael" and "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." No fault of Austen or Melville, those are two fabulously good books, but it is very annoying to hear them quoted so often out of context, isn't it?

2. Authors whose names remind me of my teenage self, in a nostalgic rather than retroactively self-despising way: Pynchon, Nabokov, Woolf (the Woolf of Orlando--mentioned here--and Flush--not mentioned here--rather than the Woolf of my not-favorite Mrs. Dalloway).

3. Author I loved as a teenager and still love (1984 is a great novel!): Orwell.

4. Authors whose novels are bizarrely overrepresented on this list: Pynchon, Morrison.

5. I must get and reread The Stranger. James Sallis made me think of this, his Lew Griffin has an obsession with that book.

6. Why the weird attempt to represent a handful of foreign-language titles? It just draws attention to the English-language-ness of the list as a whole.

7. I did not like Ha Jin's Waiting and the opening sentence seems flat and affected in this context also. What I want to read is someone's little speculative essay about the principles of selection beyond the obvious--what do you think are the agendas of these list-makers? I must go and take a look at the rest of the site and see what I can discover.

8. Sylvia Plath is a great poet but The Bell Jar is an interesting & a historically important rather than actually a great novel. Sorry to say this, I have a minor obsession with Plath, but I reread it a couple years ago along with a lot of the journals (which are GREAT) and poems and I am not going to change my mind on this.

9. Other favorite novels of mine here: Katherine Dunn, Geek Love; Robert Graves, I, Claudius (and that really is one of the great opening sentences of English literature); David Copperfield (and I forgot that Catcher in the Rye was so explicit about its Copperfieldness ... hmmm...).

10. Eighteenth-century literature is well represented here. As it should be! The first sentence of Robinson Crusoe really is brilliant, more so in my opinion than the rather flashier Sterne Tristram Shandy also given here. (Oh, of course that one's great too, no reason to take sides...)

11. I am not sure I ever really liked One Hundred Years of Solitude. It was very much in fashion in the 1980s and you sort of had to like it. I liked some things about it. But I have absolutely no desire to ever read it again.

12. "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel" (William Gibson, Neuromancer). Now that's an opening sentence I wish I'd written myself. Must go and reread lots of early cyberpunk to get myself in the mood for the next (possible extracurricular, I don't really know where I'm going to fit this in because not only is it not my academic book it's also not the projected sequel to the novel I've just written but rather something completely different) novel I am burning to write.

13. "It was the day my grandmother exploded" (Iain Banks--mistakenly given the M. middle initial here, which I think is wrong--The Crow Road). Another one I'd like very much to have written myself. I love Banks although I find his science fiction novels for the most part virtually unreadable.

14. "Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress" - George Eliot's heroines are as annoying as they are worthy.

15. I have never heard of Raymond Federman and the opening sentence of Double or Nothing does not make me want to read it at all.

16. I have never read Gilbert Sorrentino but must remedy the situation before many months pass. Quite alluring sample here.

17. Novelists whose charms I am altogether blind to and that though I'm skeptical about the 'great literature'/schlock distinction would put firmly on the side of schlock: Anne Tyler, Anita Brookner.

18. Novelists who I am convinced history will deem wildly overrated and near unreadable due to baroque excess: John Barth, John Hawkes.

19. I wouldn't mind rereading The Tin Drum, what an exceptional novel (and it makes Midnight's Children look rather less extraordinary because somewhat derivative--don't get me wrong, that's a very good novel too, but perhaps not quite on the order of the former).

20. Other novelists I want to read or reread: Beckett, Perec (not on the list), Walter Abish.

21. Last but not least, my own personal favorite on the list (well, Defoe and Dickens are up there too): "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink" (Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle). A novel that everyone should read if they have not already. It is fabulously perfect. Just perfect.

I am decadently and self-indulgently

blogging in the middle of the day, I meant to do a couple of posts last night but it was too late by the time I finished working. And since I find myself chock-full of stored-up blog energy I think I will discharge some of it before returning to work this afternoon. (My beloved grandmother was the one who voiced the thing that girls of her generation and class were taught, which was that it was virtually immoral to read a novel during the daytime, particularly before lunch. If she'd finished all the things she really needed to do she would dig out some clothes that needed ironing or water the plants or whatever--anything that counted as work. And when she moved into the old folks' home she hated the way she felt so idle, it really made her very annoyed; and she ended up doing all the laundry and ironing for an elderly gentleman who also lived at the home, a former schoolmaster known semi-satirically to her as Mr. Chips. I don't iron anybody's clothes, including my own, but I take her point about needing to feel useful.) I am not so scrupulous as she was about daytime novel-reading but daylight blogging--at least the more-than-a-one-sentence-comment-on-something-on-line kind of blogging--does indeed feel luxurious. So here goes.

Two interesting novels, both by authors I like very much writing in each case at perhaps 90% of their best but with so much talent that their flawed books are preferable to more perfectly crafted ones by less talented authors:

The first was one I've been meaning to get for a while and finally procured from the library, The Field of Blood (has this mysteriously lost the definite article in its American version?) by Denise Mina. Mina's Garnethill trilogy was certainly one of the most striking--astonishing--things I have read in the last few years. It more than lived up to the hype--if you haven't read these books, I highly recommend them, female noir set in working-class Glasgow and with lots of really heavy stuff about families and sexual abuse and alcohol-related troubles--in short, absolutely lovely! They are clumsier in the writing than I expected, but the central character is so strong and all of the characters and settings and stories so vividly realized that you frankly don't care. Her next published novel was Deception (a.k.a. Sanctum in UK), which I didn't care for. But this one is much more my cup of tea. It's Glasgow, the early 80s, and the main character is a working-class Catholic girl called Paddy Meehan who wants more than anything to be a journalist, in part because of the story of her namesake (who was unjustly arrested and imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit, then freed by a crusading journalist). The inclusion of the first Paddy Meehan's story seems to me an interesting idea but on the whole it doesn't work; yet the kind of reach and ambition that the attempt shows is part of what makes me like Mina's writing so much. In sum, I thought this one was excellent; the painful details of Paddy's struggle with what it means to be a woman in that time and place and yet someone who also wants a demanding and satisfying job is particularly well done.

The other one I've just finished reading was also very good, though for the first half rather hard to follow (or perhaps it was just me, I was reading it in New Haven with my mind rather on Boswell): Moth by the brilliant James Sallis. I really, really love the Sallis aesthetic, I've only read three or four of his but must get all the others. His books are steeped for one thing in Chester Himes who is an extreme short-list favorite of mine (here's the Amazon link for Sallis's biography of Himes, and if you only read one book by Himes--oh, god, everyone should read a LOT of his books though--it must be Cotton Comes to Harlem). Beautiful intellectual noir, anyway; occasionally a bit pretentious, occasionally a bit scattered or confusing in its back-and-forth-ing (but one thing I like about this Lew Griffin series is the narrator's unusual orientation towards time, it's not common--and the narrative effects are extremely interesting--to have a knowing present-time narrator who tells his story constantly jutting forward or allowing intrusive back- and fore-knowledge into the story he's telling); but really altogether great, including a very appealing digression on Raymond Queneau that reminded me how fond I once was of the French new novel and its even more experimental aftermath. Must go and read some of that stuff again.

(Actually what I've really been thinking has something to do with short stories. I never have resolutions--in my opinion you either want to do something and do it, or don't really want to and idly toy with the idea but won't act on it--expressing resolutions is therefore pointless and potentially even rather annoying. But I realize that it makes me crazy to only write one novel every 2-3 years and then spent 2 years revising it. I must write new fiction more regularly, and yet I also have many academic things I feel called to write. I think short stories are potentially a solution to this. Like if I wrote one every month, it would stave off the fiction-withdrawal pangs. I'm not fond of the conventional literary short story, but I have a real passion for what I always think of as tales of the uncanny--i.e. most fantasy/SF kinds of story would fit into this category, the classic ones are obviously the Conan Doyle/Robert Louis Stevenson thing but childhood favorites include Joan Aiken and those early SF guys and of course nowadays there are lots of amazing short-story writers like Neil Gaiman and Kelly Link and so forth. Resolution: stories. And that connects up with the nouveau roman thing because the last time I regularly wrote short stories was the same time I was obsessed with Beckett and Robbe-Grillet and so forth, I was seventeen or eighteen years old & I actually wrote some pretty funny stories that I might try and dig out of the old computer files if they are still in any sense available or readable. Actually I think they're not, that was PRE-COMPUTER! Not pre-computers existing, obviously, but pre-me having one of my own. Might have to wait till I can get to the old paper files and scan a few funny things. I remember a story called "Rice Torture," for instance....)

Highbrow erotica

at Serpent's Tail. (Thanks to Jai for the link.)

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Augusten Burroughs

interviewed in the Independent. It's a nice piece, too; I love Burroughs, I thought that Running with Scissors and Dry were both absolutely excellent. I bought them in the bookstore in the middle of South Station a couple of years ago when I was coming back to NY from (what was it? American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, most likely) some sort of conference, and just devoured them on Amtrak--I think I was finishing the second as the train pulled into Penn Station. Very enjoyable and also thought-provoking reading.

(Thanks to Sarah for the link.)

Saturday, January 28, 2006

And if this doesn't persuade you

that Boswell's Life of Johnson is worth a look, I don't know what will.

In 1769 Boswell accompanies Johnson home to tea and meets one of the many indigent housemates he supports, in this case a blind woman with an irritable temper called Mrs. Williams. Here is Boswell's description of how she makes the tea:

Mrs. Williams made it with sufficient dexterity, notwithstanding her blindness, though her manner of satisfying herself that the cups were full enough appeared to me a little aukward; for I fancied she put her finger down a certain way, till she felt the tea touch it.

In subsequent editions Boswell politely retracted the claim, adding this footnote: he had been told instead that “she had acquired such a niceness of touch, as to know, by the feeling on the outside of the cup, how near it was to being full.”

But Hester Thrale Piozzi, who knew Johnson well, wrote this in her copy of the 1816 edition of the Life: “Not She poor Soul; the 1st Story is the truest.”

Anyway the conference was great, I saw lots of old friends & had a lavish dinner at the Union League Cafe (including a tuna carpaccio appetizer that was pretty much the perfect food, I would eat that every day for dinner if I could) and stayed in the rather fancy Omni Hotel which has truly spectacular views out over New Haven. That Yale gothic style has never been much to my taste, the general impression is rather dark and heavy and oppressive (you know, the gym that looks like a cathedral, that sort of thing). But when you see it from a high-up window on a sunny day, it is rather ludicrously romantic, very Gormenghasty; even more spectacular with that massive red cliff that is East Rock lowering over the scene.

There is a novel by Diana Wynne Jones

(all right, this really isn't the main point, but I'm going to link to it anyway because it's great, it's The Magicians of Caprona) in which two children are lured away by a witch whose spells in this case are cast in the form of the most alluring story-books imaginable; the protagonist reads his in a daze (it's one of those perfect books about, you know, a child just like you who is somehow having exciting magical adventures and saving the world) without realizing he's in the grip of an evil spell, it's a very vividly done scene & of course encapsulates the novel-reading experience in general. On Thursday afternoon I was consumed by a book in just this way, it was quite extraordinary and I highly recommend that you read it as soon as it is officially published (not till the end of March; but that's not to stop you from preordering at Amazon if you have any affinity for this kind of book).

Even when I very first heard about this one I could tell it was EXACTLY my kind of thing. Then I read Justine Larbalestier's post at the beginning of the month and started going totally crazy. I HAD TO HAVE THIS BOOK. AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. But it wasn't being published till MARCH.

So I e-mailed The Grand Dizzy with a plea that was basically along the lines of "books like this are like CRACK as far as I am concerned, will you PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE send it to me AT ONCE and sorry for being so importunate but I can't help myself" and he obliged me in the kindest possible manner.

Usually I have no self-control about light reading but really this past week and a half I have been absolutely steeped in Johnson & Boswell and with many thousands of pages to read for work I had to resist its lure & sensible mind for once triumphed over yearning matter. It was a small paperback that I could see was perfectly suited to being train reading on my way to New Haven for the conference, that was the thing, and then it would also be my reward for having worked round the clock on those eighteenth-century guys. (Who I love. But it's not the same thing.)

And then it was Thursday & a sunny afternoon & I was high on satisfying-work-accomplishment-and-lack-of-sleep-and-being-on-my-way-out-of-town & the book was everything I expected and more. Truly, truly delightful. If you like fantasy or historical fiction at all, you must read it! But actually if you just want to read an excellent piece of popular fiction get hold of it anyway and see what you think, even if you more usually read crime novels or whatever.

Why is it taking me so long to get to the point? (I think I am working myself up into the same state of frenzied & agonized yearning that I was in when I actually got to it. Deferred gratification, intense release.)

The book: His Majesty's Dragon, first volume in the Temeraire trilogy by Naomi Novik (who happens to be married to Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime). Oh, it is so good! It can be described most simply as Anne McCaffrey meets Patrick O'Brian--the Napoleonic Wars with dragons. (Like the old Reese's commercials: your chocolate, my peanut-butter.) And there's a bit of WWI flying-ace feel because of the aerial battles, and of course any novel of this kind is tinctured with Georgette Heyer. But it's not like any other book, either, and Novik is an amazingly good writer. Very warm & persuasive on character stuff; clean understated sentences with not the tiniest hint of either the pompous habits that we all tend to fall into when we write pastichey old-fashioned stuff or of overly Heyeresque affectations which are also difficult to avoid; the dragon stuff is EXCELLENT and immensely appealing (the dragon Temeraire is the kind of guy, if I may use the word, who if he wasn't living in the early nineteenth century would be fond of listening to audiobooks while he was in the air); Novik has cunningly avoided McCaffreyesque silliness (don't get me wrong, I LOVED those books when I was a teenager, still like some of them a lot) by having the dragons actually be able to talk instead of communicating telepathically; and the thing I was perhaps most impressed with, because it is rare & because it is a gift I absolutely don't have myself, the storytelling is absolutely masterful. The pacing, the rhythm, the movement--oh, and they have cunningly and crack-withdrawal-y decided to publish the whole big thing not as one long novel but in three volumes (mass-market paperback) to be released in March, April and May 2006. This is going to be HUGE.

I MUST HAVE THE SEQUELS. As soon as possible. I am going to go right now & e-mail the publicist and see what can be done....

Two juicy exposes

The Secret Life of a Letter to the Editor (Flanagan redux); Navahoax

(Thanks to A.D. and J.S. respectively for the links.)

Psychics and novelists

Hilary Mantel has a really excellent essay in the Guardian Review, "Beyond black: questions of belief". Here's a little bit of it, about her orientation towards the psychics she saw perform:

I was not immune from fellow-feeling. Which other self-employed persons stand up in public to talk about non-existent people? Novelists, of course. We listen to non-existent voices and write down what they say. Then we talk with passion and conviction about people no one can see. Our audiences are complicit, of course, whereas the audiences for professional psychics are ambivalent. They teeter on the edge of delusion and the edge of derision. For the psychic, it's a no-win situation. If she gets it wrong, she's rubbish. If she gets it right, she's a cheat. One of the things I learned while writing the book is that scepticism can be held as firmly, devoutly, illogically as any religious position. Elaborate edifices of fraud are proposed - so elaborate, so unlikely, that it's easier to believe that, after all, the dead are speaking.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

One tiny more thing on Frey

(how long can this go on?!?), a great essay by Emily Carter, The Lie Behind the Lies:

In every recovery group that I participated in, at Hazelden and elsewhere, there was a type of young man who tended to do a lot of what in recovery jargon is called 'maximizing.' Everyone is familiar with the minimizing, otherwise known as denial--the cirrhosis patient who can't understand why she's hospitalized, all she ever drank was a little wine after dinner. The maximizers I encountered went the other way: They'd bluster about having snorted mountains of cocaine, smoked rocks the size of glaciers, shot up six thousand dollars a day. All were wanted by the law, you bet. Generally speaking, maximizers were young, affluent males.

This is no news, really. Any barmaid will tell you that men can mythologize themselves and each other like nobody's business. Really, though, these young men are simply protecting their soft centers with layer upon layer of braggadocio, like drowning out Roy Orbison with the Scarface soundtrack. But to write from this point of self-ignorance is to send out a false report. Frey clearly wanted to write not of, but as, the person he wanted to be. His agenda was to glamorize himself, make himself look clear-eyed and potent at the expense of other people. Frey's mistake is one that all writers, even good ones, make when they're starting out. The self-glorifying or blame-dodging impulse is easy to spot. 'No more misunderstood waifs!' I remember one instructor yelling in a writing workshop. And yes, he was yelling at me. I was 18 years old, and if anything I had written then were to be published now I would use it as a valid excuse for a major relapse.

Carter is the author of the really excellent story collection Glory Goes and Gets Some, which I highly recommend; I don't usually read/like story collections, but this one has the pleasures of a very good novel.

(Thanks to Sarah for the link.)

I want to see


Thinking about Boswell and Johnson to the exclusion of all else. Expect light posting only through Saturday. And if you're in New Haven on Friday, come to the conference on "Two Biographers: Johnson and Boswell" at Yale's Whitney Humanities Center; free and open to the public. I'm speaking in the afternoon on the use of particular details in life-writing and the novel.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

I am pleased to say

(having just been turned away as a non-subscriber from the Atlantic website--that's a magazine I phase in and out of subscribing to, about twice a year there's a cover story that makes me buy a newsstand copy & then I decide to subscribe since it's barely more than 2 x cover price & then I find myself not reading it at all and let it lapse...) that Caitlin Flanagan's essay about oral sex is fully available for free at the excellent Powell's review-a-day site. (That's a page to bookmark, they really do have good stuff that you can't get otherwise).

In short (it's a bizarre essay, worth a look), Flanagan admires Tipper Gore, finds blowjobs debasing. (Thanks to A. for alerting me to the essay's existence.)

Monday, January 23, 2006

Voltaic Yoo-hoo

A fabulous little essay in the Village Voice by Devin McKinney on Harry Stephen Keeler and the Collins Library reissue of the really quite amazing The Riddle of the Traveling Skull. (Here is me raving at the end of December about how much I liked it.)

Elegant extracts

I have grown very fond of blogging, and when I have once or twice tried to explain its appeal to the non-blogger I have said it's like having pet fish--you just have to remember to put some food in the tank occasionally, but it's a high rate of return for low maintenance. (For some reason I also always imagine putting coins in a parking meter as a good analogy.) At any rate, here are a few pellets (an inelegant phrase) from Boswell's Life of Johnson, just little funny things that caught my eye but don't have anything to do with the real stuff I'm writing about:

I talked of the difficulty of rising in the morning. Dr. Johnson told me, 'that the learned Mrs. Carter, at that period when she was eager in study, did not awake as early as she wished, and she therefore had a contrivance, that, at a certain hour, her chamber-light should burn a string to which a heavy weight was suspended, which then fell with a strong sudden noise: this roused her from sleep, and then she had no difficulty in getting up.' But I said THAT was my difficulty; and wished there could be some medicine invented which would make one rise without pain, which I never did, unless after lying in bed a very long time. Perhaps there may be something in the stores of Nature which could do this. I have thought of a pulley to raise me gradually; but that would give me pain, as it would counteract my internal inclination.

Having asked Mr. Langton if his father and mother had sat for their pictures, which he thought it right for each generation of a family to do, and being told they had opposed it, he said, 'Sir, among the anfractuosities of the human mind, I know not if it may not be one, that there is a superstitious reluctance to sit for a picture.'

Mr. Eliot mentioned a curious liquor peculiar to his country, which the Cornish fishermen drink. They call it MAHOGANY; and it is made of two parts gin, and one part treacle, well beaten together. I begged to have some of it made, which was done with proper skill by Mr. Eliot. I thought it very good liquor; and said it was a counterpart of what is called ATHOL PORRIDGE in the Highlands of Scotland, which is a mixture of whisky and honey. Johnson said, 'that muse be a better liquor than the Cornish, for both its component parts are better.' He also observed, 'MAHOGANY must be a modern name; for it is not long since the wood called mahogany was known in this country.'

I shall never forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature. I am, unluckily, one of those who have an antipathy to a cat, so that I am uneasy when in the room with one; and I own, I frequently suffered a good deal from the presence of this same Hodge. I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr. Johnson's breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying 'why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;' and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, 'but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.'

Sunday, January 22, 2006

One thing I really love

is the music of Rosanne Cash, and I am happy to see from Alan Light's article in the New York Times that she's got a new album called Black Cadillac being released this week. Mmmm... I think I am going to go and splurge on some CDs at Amazon.... One thing I sunk a bit of cash in recently was Prince - The Hits/The B-Sides which is excellent but which makes me want A LOT MORE. I had a huge collection of Prince tapes in the late 80s (many of them recorded for me by a very nice guy I worked with during a mainly quite awful summer that included some temp work at Urban Outfitters in Philadelphia) but of course they are long since rendered obsolete.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Good literary stuff

(no subscription required!) in the latest New York Review of Books, including an interesting essay by Alison Lurie called The Passion of C.S. Lewis:

It is no surprise that conservative Christians admire these books. They teach us to accept authority; to love and follow our leaders instinctively, as the children in the Narnia books love and follow Aslan. By implication, they suggest that we should and will admire and fear and obey whatever impressive-looking and powerful male authority figures we come in contact with. They also suggest that without the help of Aslan (that is, of such powerful figures, or their representatives on earth) we are bound to fail. Alone, we are weak and ignorant and helpless. Individual initiative is limited-almost everything has already been planned out for us in advance, and we cannot know anything or achieve anything without the help of God.

This is, of course, the kind of mindset that evangelical churches prefer and cultivate: the kind that makes people vote against their own economic and social interests, that makes successful, attractive, and apparently intelligent young men and women want to become the apprentices of Donald Trump, or of much worse rich and powerful figures. This mindset could even be called deluded, since in this world a giant lion does not usually appear to see that the right side wins and all the good people are happy. In Narnia faith in Aslan, who comes among his followers and speaks to them, may make sense: but here on earth, as the classic folk tales have told us for generations, it is better to depend on your own courage and wit and skill, and the good advice of less than omnipotent beings.

(Whatever you might say about the bad politics of the Chronicles of Narnia, though, they are among my most-loved childhood books; I read through the whole sequence again and again, with different favorites at different ages.)

Also, and even better, John Leonard writing wittily on Rick Moody (I've never read one of Moody's books; am slightly horrified to see that this one's 567pp., seems too long; more appealingly, though, it has a werewolf subplot... mmmm.... shapeshifting suburban housewives, sounds much more like my kind of novel...). The whole essay seems to me perceptive and fair, and it includes this particularly appealing paragraph:

We bargain in good faith, those of us who will read anything, hoping at least to complicate ourselves, at most to save our souls. Because Rick Moody from the beginning has been so playful, prodigal, spendthrift, heedless, and frisky, because he trampolines and pogosticks all over the map in our heads, because he throws such an excess of colors, textures, ideas, smells, and smarts at us, whether we're ready or not, because he's a deep reader with a second-story touch, a bookworm on a skateboard, we put up with a lot and forgive even more. This doesn't seem to me to be such a big deal—and at any rate, it's the same one we've made with pop culture. In return for vitality, spontaneity, and the occasional hot flash, we pretend not to notice what's skin-deep, addlepated, nasty, brutish, and short.

And this:

So he isn't yet up there with Richard Powers, Mary Gordon, or Kathryn Davis. Neither am I. Neither are you. Why is everybody saying all these terrible things about him?

And useful reflections on why we love to hate McSweeney's et al., and why that's just (or is it?) the inevitable resentment. This paragraph's stylish & pretty irresistible:

But some of the resentment was obviously social and provincial—a clenching of fists and a stamping of feet at the very idea of Rick Moody and his cool-dude buddies, young white male writers from whom books seem to fall like peaches from a tree. ("I am Envy. I cannot reade, and therefore wish all bookes were burnt. I am leane with seeing others eate," Marlowe explained in Dr. Faustus.) Never mind that cohorts of scribblers have always herded together like zebras on the African veldt, the better to dodge the great white hunters and hyenas; that, for mating purposes, protective cover, style tips, and stuff to write about, Lost Generations, Partisan Reviewers, angel-headed hipsters, and ninja hacker cyberpunks have bundled with and blurbed one another. Surely it's better that these cohorts should gather, like Rick and the Jonathans, in arboretums like McSweeney's, than fester in Brat Pack Manhattan nests like Nell's.

Seriously, this one's a must-read for the literary types.

All right, enough NYRB pasting, back to Boswell!

A great young-adult novel

about the ridiculous painfulness of love at age fifteen and various other things: Empress of the World by Sara Ryan. I've been hearing good things about this book for a while now, had it in the Amazon shopping cart but was preempted by Sara herself kindly sending me a copy. And it's excellent, very serious and sweet and rather touching. The voice of the (female) narrator Nic is very well done, plus the extra painfulness of the story being her girlfriend dumping her for a boy she doesn't even really like.

Passage I most identified with:

"You know what I think about religion?" I ask. Not waiting for an answer, I say, "I think it would be great if it was all clear-cut the way it is in Madeleine L'Engle books. Where you know who the bad guys are and it's all important and beautiful and it means that you can communicate telepathically with dolphins."

Isn't that great? That's a reference to a MUCH-loved childhood book of mine, A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L'Engle, which I see was originally published in May 1980, which sounds just about right--I think it actually may have been the first novel I ever bought in hardcover, I saw it in the window of a local bookstore and just HAD TO HAVE IT; almost everything I read came from the library, it was a frugal upbringing, so this stands out, and that I addictively read it immediately and many times.

Other favorite exchange:

"Why are you laughing?"

I wheeze a few times and manage eventually to get enough breath to say, "Us. We're acting like teenagers, you know." My voice is shaky. At a certain point, it really is hard to tell the difference between laughing and crying.

"We ARE teenagers," Battle reminds me.

"I know. But this is so dumb."

It was actually almost painful reading the novel, it so acutely reminded me of the summer I spent at age 15-turning-16 at a Telluride Association Summer Program at Williams in 1987. Where I did indeed meet the great love of my life--I chose what college to attend because it was the one he was going to--and then of course the week after I decided we broke up, and so it goes. And he was murdered in 1998, how melancholy to think of it all....

I guess if I have a criticism of the book it's that the kids do seem a bit young, my memory of being that age is that you're MADDENINGLY convinced (in retrospect, wrongly, but whatever) that you are completely a grown-up and that things are direly wrong and importantly bad and so forth and it is all far more melodramatic than Ryan's rather calm narrator is willing to indulge herself in. I don't know what it is about age fifteen--that's the age of the main character of my new novel, though it's definitely not young-adult fiction, it's written mainly for grownups--but something about it sticks with you, not in a good way. Ryan is gentle with her characters, though; it's reassuring & should persuade us all not to be too critical of our younger selves. After all, it is one of the great consolations in life to be no longer fifteen (foolish and generally extreme behavior continues till all ages, of course, but hopefully not in such high proportions & intensity).

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The audiobook problem

Andrew Adam Newman has an interesting piece in the times, How Should a Book Sound? And What About Footnotes?:

Early in 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' is the passage: 'When I first met Siobhan, she showed me this picture,' under which is the inverted-smiley face, and below that the text, 'and I knew that it meant 'sad,' which is what I felt when I found the dead dog.' In Recorded Books' version, the narrator, Jeff Woodman, reads, 'when I first met Siobhan, she drew a picture of a face, and I knew that it was a sad face. Sad is what I felt when I found the dead dog.'

I don't think I've ever listened to an audiobook in my life. I am too impatient, I could never stand being read aloud to even when I was a little kid. However (this is a bad character trait, I think) I enjoy reading aloud to other people, there's an element of acting/imposing your interpretation that is extremely satisfying.

I have always been completely in love with Russia

and the last detail in these paragraphs about arctic temperatures in Moscow strike me as quite adorable (seriously, can you picture it? it should be Georgian champagne, or perhaps port...):

Temperatures in Moscow plunged overnight to as low as minus 24, said Tatyana Pozdnyakova, a Moscow weather forecasting service official. The temperature was the lowest recorded on Jan. 19 since 1927, she said.

Seven people died of exposure in the Russian capital in the previous 24 hours, city emergency officials said, pushing the nationwide death toll from the Siberian cold wave that swept into Moscow late Monday to at least 31.

At a zoo in Lipetsk, south of Moscow, director Alexander Osipov said monkeys would be given wine three times day, ''to protect against colds,'' the RIA-Novosti news agency reported.

Angela Carter's fairy tales

Elizabeth Lowry has a great essay in the TLS (yes, it's online, too) on Angela Carter's Fairy Tales (a collection which is possibly only being released in the UK?).

It includes this perceptive discussion of The Snow Queen, which is my absolute favorite Hans Christian Andersen story of all time (from it I've borrowed the title & rough plot of the sequel to the novel I've just finished):

Unlike the narrators in Carter's collection, Andersen, as A. S. Byatt put it in a Keatsian phrase, has 'designs on the reader'. Take 'The Snow Queen', his passionate and tormented fable about an imprisoned self, written in 1845. Andersen's tale is built out of the emblems - ice, mirrors, the purity of snow - common to a group of stories about Snow White, but it refashions them into a terrifying vision that is unique. Kay and Gerda are childhood companions, until a splinter from a magical distorting mirror enters Kay's eye and his heart. He puts away his childish games and begins to spend all his time with a magnifying glass, admiring the perfect geometry of snowflakes, and doing mental arithmetic and fractions. One day he is claimed by the Snow Queen, a dazzlingly 'lovely and intelligent' woman made of ice, who keeps him as a willing prisoner in her cold palace beside a frozen lake, called 'The Mirror of Reason', that is shattered into pieces like a giant jigsaw puzzle. After many misadventures Gerda at last manages to find Kay, but he remains indifferent to her distress, absorbed as he is in solving the puzzle of the lake. It is only when Gerda begins to cry, and her hot tears melt the ice in Kay's heart, that he recognizes her, and in turn sheds tears that wash the splinter of glass out of his eye. At that moment the pieces of the shattered lake reconfigure themselves to spell 'Eternity'. In the space of a few paragraphs Andersen brings Kay and Gerda seamlessly home, where everything looks as it used to and they take their old childhood seats, although they themselves have become a man and woman. Gerda and Kay have triumphed over the mystery of time by preserving their innocence in adulthood.

This most unnerving story has all the stock elements of the traditional fairy tale: the fraught journey that is growing up, the opposition between purity and corruption, the stress on the importance of loyalty to those we love; but it is also, surely, about the seductive lure of the life of the intellect, the – to the creative artist – most tantalizing promise of aesthetic perfection and total freedom from distracting human ties. The Snow Queen, shimmering, flawless and aloof, is as desirable as she is dangerous, and one feels Andersen’s own attraction to her even as he pushes home the story’s expected moral. Far from recycling the fairy-tale conventions that lay to hand, Andersen has remixed their colours and given them a new and ambivalent intensity.

(I have always taken the story to be a fable of female masochism, though; Gerda following Kay despite his coldness and cruelty.)

Litblogging long before the internet

The other night I read a couple of novels as a reward after finishing my own dreaded novel revisions; the first one was a really very entertaining first novel of a kind I don't usually read (fashion-industry semi-jokey-but-really-fairly-serious chick-lit/crime) but was pleased by, Fashion Victim by Sam Baker. I definitely recommend it, it's well-written (well, a few point-of-view glitches) and likeable and very much of the best of the Lipstick Chronicles-type fare.

It was eclipsed, though, by the next one I read, which I ABSOLUTELY LOVED. How come I never heard of this book before? (Actually, that's clear enough if you look at the Amazon reviews--it is a long time since I was a teenager, and this was first published in 1999....) It was recommended by Kevin Wignall (who blogs with a few others at Contemporary Nomad and is actually elsewhereblogging a serial novel called Like Plastic--go down to the bottom of the page and read upwards, obviously--but is chiefly notable for being the author of two superb if-you-took-the-fat-suit-off-the-best-of-Robert-Ludlum thrillers called For the Dogs and People Die which have my absolutely highest recommendation, they are so smart and well-written they had me drooling with envy when I read them). I registered the name of this book a while ago and then he recommended it again recently and I swore to get it at once. For some reason (hmmm, can't think why; the last name of the author, I suppose?) I had sort of mixed it up in my head with something like The People's Act of Love by James Meek (which I have not read)--like, uh (I realize this sounds completely idiotic and implausible), that it was a worthy and poetic novel set in Siberia near the beginning of the century. NOT!

So what's the novel in question? (Don't know why I'm having so much trouble getting to the point this evening--I guess I got distracted pasting in those links.) The absolutely perfectly lovable The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. Oh, it's perfect, it's narrated (well, he's writing letters, so I guess it's an epistolary novel really) by a super-depressed teenage boy who's on a Dostoevsky-Fitzgerald-Ayn-Rand-Salingeresque reading jag & quite simply the voice is the most affecting thing you'll ever read, it's great. Very funny and touching and perfectly done.

It's sort of non-excerptable, the effect is cumulative, but here's a nice early stretch (seriously, this is the great novel of the mix tape, do you remember the pain and agony of making/receiving those in the teenage years? I was just remembering a non-love related one my friend Paul made for me, it was called "Trashy Novels" and it had T. Rex, Slider on one side and Teenage Fanclub, Bandwagonesque on the other, two albums that I actually still listen to all the time though now on my iPod--not properly a mix tape, but still...). Anyway, here goes:

Honestly, I don't like doing dishes. I like eating with my fingers and off napkins, but my sister says that doing so is bad for the environment. She is part of the Earth Day Club here in high school, and that is where she meets the boys. They are all very nice to her, and I don't really understand why except maybe the fact that she is pretty. She really is mean to these boys.

One boy has it particularly hard. I won't tell you his name. But I will tell you all about him. He has very nice brown hair, and he wears it long with a ponytail. I think he will regret this when he looks back on his life. He is always making mix tapes for my sister with very specific themes. One was called 'Autumn Leaves.' He inlcluded many songs by the Smiths. He even hand-colored the cover. After the movie he rented was over, and he left, my sister gave me the tape.

"Do you want this, Charlie?"

I took the tape, but I felt weird about it because he had made it for her. But I listened to it. And loved it very much. There is one song called 'Asleep' that I would like you to listen to. I told my sister about it. And a week later she thanked me because when this boy asked her about the tape, she said exactly what I said about the song "Asleep," and this boy ws very moved by how much it meant to her. I hope this means I will be good at dating when the time comes.

Anyway it's a sad book (actually the end wraps things up a little too neatly, that's my only complaint) and a good one & will be added to my mental shelf alongside Mark Haddon's Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and (a particular favorite of mine, everybody should read this one as well as Chbosky) Ben Rice's Pobby and Dingan.

Ever since that I've just been sleeping weird hours and racing through Boswell's really altogether delightful Life of Johnson. The funny thing is that the whole litblog thing has taken off since I last read this book c. 1995 and seriously (this will sound overly whimsical or affected if you have never read [a] Boswell or [b] litblogs) Boswell is SO a litblogger avant la lettre! It would have been the perfect form for him--his writing is so much in the spirit of it--it's really just like, oh, what's a good example, Ed's recent post on David Foster Wallace. JUST like. Trust me on this.

Perhaps the most personally interesting quotations I've come across in the first five hundred pages or so are from Johnson's anxious/appealing letters just preceding the publication of the Dictionary. (That link's for a remarkable thing, the CD-ROM version which includes the first and fourth editions, it's quite amazing--well, the interface is a bit clunky, I think they are going to update this in some newer & online format shortly--and if you were going to blow $320 on something you could hardly do better. Or go and check it out at your local research library. It's amazing.)

Reading the letters Johnson sent as he's waiting to hear, anyway, seriously gave me a pang; I hope this is not hubristic, but it is hard to imagine a clearer expression of how you feel when you're an author awaiting knowledge of how your book will be received. Here's Johnson writing to Thomas Warton:

I now begin to see land, after having wandered, according to Mr. Warburton's phrase, in this vast sea of words. What reception I shall meet with on the shore, I know not; whether the sound of bells, and acclamations of the people, which Ariosto talks of in his last Canto, or a general murmur of dislike, I know not: whether I shall find upon the coast a Calypso that will court, or a Polypheme that will resist. But if Polypheme comes, have at his eyes. I hope, however, the criticks will let me be at peace; for though I do not much fear their skill and strength, I am a little afraid of myself, and would not willingly feel so much ill-will in my bosom as literary quarrels are apt to excite.

Or this letter, to a friend and colleague


I have sent some parts of my Dictionary, such as were at hand, for your inspection. The favour which I beg is, that if you do not like them, you will say nothing. I am, Sir,

Your most affectionable humble servant,


Monday, January 16, 2006

So after two months of painfully hard work

that made me feel like the village idiot of all novel-writers, I have just now sent back to the agent I'm hoping to work with the final revised version of Dynamite No. 1. Here's a few paragraphs of background on the novel, which is meant to be the first of a trilogy:

Sophie Hunter hates being fifteen years old. Your guardian treats you like you're a child, your teachers talk down to you and your school friends drive you crazy. Even in normal times, it's hard to decide what to do when you grow up, and it's about a million times harder when the city you call home is under constant threat of terrorist attack and the country's on the verge of war. Not to mention the fact that you're having a little sleepwalking problem, you've recently gained the ability to see into the future and dead people are sending you messages to say that the fate of the world rests in your hands.

DYNAMITE No. 1 is the first novel of a trilogy set in an alternate-history version of the 1930s, one where the legacy of Napoleon's victory a century earlier at Waterloo is a standoff between a totalitarian Federation of European States (led by France, Germany and England) and a group of independent northern countries (including Scotland, Denmark, Sweden and Estonia) united under the banner of the New Hanseatic League. The trilogy's cultural landscape contains elements of the familiar and the bizarre: its people are preoccupied with technology (everything from electric cookers to high explosives) but also with spiritualism, a movement our world largely abandoned in the early twentieth century but that has here displaced most forms of organized religion. In this world, Sigmund Freud is a radio talk-show crank, cars run on hydrogen and the most prominent scientists experiment with new ways of contacting the dead.

I'm really pleased with how the latest version's come out; in mid-December I was looking at it with despair (there was a sequence of scenes in the middle that I really seemed to have put in almost completely random order, for instance--and I'd already done three grueling rewrites over the past year and a half, plus who-knows-how-many incredibly thorough copy-edits, so who knows how that kind of incoherence survives into such a late draft?!?--and I took it all to pieces and it was as though you took apart your motorcycle and had all the parts sitting in rows on sheets in your living-room, it is not at all a heartening feeling). But somehow it all came out beautifully put back together (or so it seems to me now, I expect some fatal flaw will emerge later on but let's not worry about it) and it is certainly a great relief to have it off my desk now for a little while.

When I started blogging I thought I'd be chronicling the passage of this novel towards publication, but I soon realized that it's all much too delicate and private to put out here--it's not that I'm secretive about where things are, if you e-mail me I will tell you--but I can't be pasting my neurotic musings all over the internet! So I probably won't say more about this here until I have a much clearer idea what's happening with it, i.e. it will be March or April and I'll either be doing another rewrite (oh, I hope not...) or else gloating over a book contract. Or, you know, anxiously pre-gloating as it gets sent out to publishers, in any case.

So wish me luck in the meantime, and as soon as there's good news--but it won't be for a pretty long time, even in a best-case scenario--you will see it here....

Oh, and I do think I'm going to paste in a chapter. A very short chapter that comes near the beginning; it's rather info-dump-y but that also makes it easier to understand. (I've still never worked out how to do the "after the jump" code. This will just be a very scrolling-down kind of a post.) So here's Chapter Six, just for a little teaser. We're in a rather Muriel Spark-like alternate-universe 1938 Edinburgh, in case you can't tell....

That night Sophie had a strange dream. In the dream, she sat bolt upright in bed, swung her legs out onto the floor and felt with her feet for the battered leather slippers that had been her father’s when he was a boy. In her nightgown, she found her way down the stairs by the light of the moon spilling in through the windows on the landings. At the sitting-room door, she reached her hand up to the lintel and felt for the key. She unlocked the door—Great-aunt Tabitha locked all the inside doors herself before going to bed, a precaution against burglars—and closed it softly behind her, clutching the key in her hand.

The sitting-room air moved in visible currents, currents that Sophie in her dream associated with the spirit breeze of the night before. She walked straight through to the sideboard with the Famille Rose bowl, goldfish painted around its inside, into which Sophie as a little girl had sometimes thrown crumbs in hopes of luring the fish to life. She leaned over to look into the bowl and it was full of water, with half a dozen enormous goldfish swimming round in circles.

In the dream she was not at all surprised. She watched the goldfish swim about for ages before she turned away, left the room, locked the door and returned the key to its hiding place before mounting the stairs to bed.

She was woken the next morning by the maid whose job it was to bring up the brass hot-water can for the washstand. The house had no bathrooms, Great-Aunt Tabitha had refused to modernize on the grounds that what was good enough for her father was good enough for her and Sophie (and the maids wore a costume dating back to the late nineteenth century, long aprons over black ankle-length dresses and white caps with streamers that were the very devil to keep clean, according to the Irish washerwoman who came every Monday).

Though the maid chattered away as she shook the warm towel off the top of the can and poured the water into the basin, Sophie couldn’t take anything in. She felt strangely groggy, almost as though she were still dreaming.

“A bomb?” she echoed stupidly, sitting up and trying to collect herself.

“Yes, Miss Sophie, didn’t you hear the telephone first thing this morning?”

Now that Sophie thought about it, her morning dreams (a dark confusing blur of emergencies) had included the buzzing of an egg-timer and the beeping of a radio-wave apparatus for detecting enemy aircraft. It must have been the sound of the telephone ringing in the hall. . . . (It was characteristic of Great-aunt Tabitha that she had entirely rejected hot and cold running water as unnecessary luxury while embracing the new technology for transmitting and receiving the human voice over distance. The brainchild of Aleksandr Tolstoy Bell, son of an eminent Scottish educator of the deaf and his glamorous Russian wife, the telephone had failed to allow the deaf to communicate with each other by converting vibrations to electrical impulses, but it had undoubtedly become an indispensable part of life in the modern world: Sophie felt its presence in Heriot Row every day as a malign and largely successful rival for Great-aunt Tabitha’s attention.)

“It was the Minister of Public Safety,” the maid continued, opening the curtains and picking Sophie’s pink dress up from where it had fallen on the floor. “Calling to tell Miss Hunter that a bomb’d gone off in St. Giles’ Cathedral.”

“But it’s only nine o’clock now,” Sophie said, her brain finally starting to work. “The cathedral must have been quite empty.”

“Aye, that’s right,” said the maid, “it went off too soon and the only one in the building was the night watchman. Hours ago, it was. So nobody was killed, just the man guarding the place knocked out with the blast, but said to be doing well in hospital.”

Though it wasn’t nearly as bad as it might have been, the thought of another bomb going off made Sophie’s eyes water. She groaned and slid back down into the bed. The water would get cold, though, if she didn’t get up soon. As she washed and dressed, Sophie tried to pretend she hadn’t heard anything about the latest attack. But rather than calming her down, trying to put it out of mind made her feel jumpy and upset.

Sophie had her breakfast in the kitchen, toast and marmalade and a very sour dish of stewed rhubarb which she dosed with sugar when Peggy wasn’t looking. Afterwards she went into the sitting-room and helped herself to the Sunday papers. Great-aunt Tabitha had gone out already, so Sophie was free to stretch out on her stomach on the hearthrug, the papers strewn all around her.

At school, Miss Henchman clipped out stories to keep the girls informed about current events, consigning to the fire anything that might contaminate the purity of their youthful minds: the testimony delivered at a high-profile divorce trial, an account of the dismembered corpses found in a trunk at the left luggage office at Waverley Station. Great-aunt Tabitha ridiculed this practice and let Sophie read whatever she wanted, so of course the first thing she looked at on the weekend was the scandalous stuff.

That finished, she turned to the main news. The editors of the Scotsman called for the arrest and execution, not just of the Brothers of the Northern Liberties themselves but of anybody who aided and abetted them or failed to turn a suspect in to the police. The International Courier Tribune gave the year’s body count in Edinburgh to date—two hundred and forty-eight.

In America, the Northern Union and the Southern Confederacy had yet again renewed hostilities and a cholera epidemic was decimating refugee camps along the Mason-Dixon line. India (independent since the Sepoy Revolution of 1857, though eighty years of self-governance had yet to solve the problem of religious conflict) was admitting only to border skirmishes between Hindu- and Muslim-dominated provinces, but Red Cross observers had counted more than ten thousand deaths due to sectarian violence in the first half of the year.

Worst of all, the Federation of European States seemed to be gearing up for war. Charismatic leaders in Germany and Italy spoke to huge crowds, working the people up into hysteria about the threat posed by foreigners within their borders and by the neutrality of the Hanseatic states without. The Hanseatic League was always poised in an uneasy truce with the Federation on the one hand and Imperial Russia on the other, a truce maintained with the help of the Nobel cartel, which allowed the Hanseatic states to ration out weapons and explosives to Europe and the other great powers. The value of this contribution to world peace was part of what the Brothers of the Northern Liberties had begun to question.

After a while, Sophie could read no more. It was hard enough deciding what to do when you left school in any case. But how could you work out who you really were and what you wanted to do when the world itself threatened to be a quite different place by the time you grew up?

Sophie rolled onto her back and closed her eyes, pressing her fingers down on them to get rid of the sore-itchy feeling of newsprint.

Rubbing her eyes, she suddenly remembered the dream of the night before. The imaginary goldfish were the only nice thing she’d thought of all weekend. If only there really were goldfish in the rose bowl. . . .

Something drew her up and over to look. She laid her palms on either side of the bowl, then leaned over to peer inside. She was a little disappointed but also greatly relieved to find it quite empty, the smug well-fed goldfish safely two-dimensional beneath the pottery glaze.

Then she sniffed the air. Looking closer, she saw that the sides of the bowl were flaked with the sort of scum you’d expect to find in a fishbowl that hadn’t been properly cleaned.

Had the dream been real?

She must be losing her mind.

In a mad rush, she stacked the newspapers on the table for Great-aunt Tabitha, then made a fast retreat, resisting the urge to lock the door behind her.

Don’t be an idiot, she told herself. Real or imaginary, those goldfish are hardly going to do you any harm.

It was more frightening to think that she might have actually walked in her sleep without even knowing it. In the kitchen, Peggy had to ask Sophie several times what she wanted for her dinner. She spent so much of the afternoon staring at the blank third page of the essay she was meant to be writing that she had to work late after supper to finish the rest of her homework, the only consolation being that her dreams that night were filled, not with explosives, psychic messages or preternatural goldfish, but with differential equations and the rules governing the use of the subjunctive in French.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

David Lodge has an interesting little piece

(dry but interesting) about his friendship with Malcolm Bradbury at the Times online. (These are guys I read in the throes of my teenage fixation on Anthony Burgess, which included taking his extremely eccentric 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939 as a personal reading challenge.) Here's a bit of Lodge's essay, anyway:

Malcolm was a great collaborator. I do not know whether it was literally true that he and his friend Barry Spacks would bash away simultaneously at their typewriters until one called out 'Stuck!' and then change places (see extract) but it is a wonderful image. Malcolm responded to other people's ideas and could often see in them possibilities of which their originators were unaware. Shortly after he came to Birmingham, I had found in a second-hand book shop a copy of a light romantic novel, by a completely forgotten novelist, published in 1915, called 'Nymphet.' That is the name given by the hero to an 11-year-old girl who facilitates his union with his beloved. It is also of course the generic name bestowed by Humbert Humbert on the heroine of Vladimir Nabokov's 'Lolita,' published 40 years later, which was thought to be the only application of this archaic word in modern literature. It was possible to see beneath the innocent sentimental surface of 'Nymphet' the unconscious representation of an adult man's erotic attraction to a pre-pubescent girl, and to regard it as some kind of precursor of Nabokov's masterpiece. It seemed worth writing up, and I sent my essay to a few magazines - without success. Malcolm offered to rewrite it and split the fee if he placed it. Being hard up at the time, I agreed. Malcolm transformed my straightforward essay into a personal anecdotal piece in a humorous self-mocking style which he had honed in many contributions to Punch, and sold it to the American magazine Mademoiselle. I was impressed - and a little piqued.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Kurt Vonnegut's autobiography

excerpted in the Guardian:

I used to be the owner and manager of an automobile dealership in West Barnstable, Massachusetts, called Saab Cape Cod. It and I went out of business 33 years ago. The Saab then, as now, was a Swedish car, and I now believe my failure as a dealer so long ago explains what would otherwise remain a deep mystery: Why the Swedes have never given me a Nobel Prize for Literature. Old Norwegian proverb: 'Swedes have short dicks but long memories.'

Listen: The Saab back then had only one model, a bug like a VW, a two-door sedan, but with the engine in front. It had suicide doors opening into the slipstream. Unlike all other cars, but like your lawnmower and your outboard, it had a two-stroke rather than a four-stroke engine. So every time you filled your tank with gas, you had to pour in a can of oil as well. For whatever reason, straight women did not want to do this.

The chief selling point was that a Saab could drag a VW at a stoplight. But if you or your significant other had failed to add oil to the last tank of gas, you and the car would then become fireworks. It also had front-wheel drive, of some help on slippery pavements or when accelerating into curves. There was this as well: As one prospective customer said to me, 'They make the best watches. Why wouldn't they make the best cars, too?' I was bound to agree.

The Saab back then was a far cry from the sleek, powerful, four-stroke yuppie uniform it is today. It was the wet dream, if you like, of engineers in an airplane factory who'd never made a car before. Wet dream, did I say? Get a load of this: There was a ring on the dashboard, connected to a chain running over pulleys in the engine compartment. Pull on it, and at the far end it would raise a sort of window shade on a springloaded roller behind the front grill. That was to keep the engine warm while you went off somewhere. So, when you came back, if you hadn't stayed away too long, the engine would start right up again.

But if you stayed away too long, window shade or not, the oil would separate from the gas and sink like molasses to the bottom of the tank. So when you started up again, you would lay down a smokescreen like a destroyer in a naval engagement. And I actually blacked out the whole town of Woods Hole at high noon that way, having left a Saab in a parking lot there for about a week. I am told old timers there still wonder out loud about where all that smoke could have come from.

I came to speak ill of Swedish engineering, and so diddled myself out of a Nobel Prize.

Noir is the great genre of reading and drinking

and I've just read two books (loved one, kind of hated the other) that painfully clarified for me what I do and don't like reading.

The one I loved: Black Hornet by James Sallis. This, for me, is pretty much the perfect novel (oh, if you were feeling irritable, you could say it becomes slightly overblown at some points, but that's quibbling): Lew Griffin is a black man (ex-military) in late-sixties New Orleans, a sniper's taking people out all over town & he gets caught up in the investigation.

But that doesn't tell you anything about what's so great about the book: it's an intense and gripping first-person narrative, lots of violence and drinking and general craziness & bleak worldview, that's heavily intellectual without being at all pretentious. Chester Himes, my favorite! Camus! Goethe! Sallis is not afraid to be serious here & it really works.

I've got a stack of his other books waiting for me to read, part of my good haul at the library earlier this week; it was Ken Bruen who first turned me on to Sallis, he told me I had to read Cypress Grove and he was totally right, here's me raving about Cypress Grove last year (hmm, don't know why I didn't go and get all his other books right away, I completely fell in love with that one--I expect I was having a busy spell, I see it was November 2004 & I know I was particularly swamped that month and following).

Ken's writing has that thing going too, where the books have an insane manic energy and are just SUPER-INTELLECTUALLY INTENSE as well & you get these great quotations--everything from Wittgenstein to Sylvia Plath, seriously eclectic in just the way I like--and you're reminded of why we even care about famous writers and thinkers, and it's not because of canon or reputation but just because they had some ass-kicking-type powerful insights that they put into extraordinarily memorable sequences of words that nobody else on the planet could have come up with. And literary quotations belong in noir fiction like in no other kind. Oh, reading Black Hornet has just given me the best kind of literary high, I am itching to go out and write a lot of crazed novels that might give a few other people the feeling that this one gave me. . . .

The book I didn't like--hate is too strong, I was just left unmoved by it--was Unfinished Business by Barbara Seranella. Maybe it's partly what happens when you come in at book 4 of a series; the routine felt worn & non-self-standing (or perhaps it's a weakish book in a strong series, I've heard very good things about these books and had high expectations). I won't write her off completely, I've got some of the others and will check them out to see what I think. But something just felt so formulaic and under-imagined about these--the conceit is that the main character (female) is a former biker chick/addict, now an auto mechanic going straight in LA & helping out her cop friend with his investigations.

It's not that novels have to have literary allusions for me to like them, of course they don't, but I couldn't see a single sentence here that had anything really characteristic about it; the prose is just workmanlike & I never got the intensity of what is meant to be the scariness-of-being-stalked-or-of-Stockholm-syndrome-type-stalker-identification center of the book. So it made me think about series I do and don't like; I've never been able to read Sue Grafton (this one was very Graftonesque), whereas I kind of love Sara Paretsky (more intellectual/political content & rage, those books work for me) and also Patricia Cornwell (because she's a nutcase in a way I like; yes, the Scarpetta books become increasingly whacked-out and bizarre, the earliest ones are still more satisfying reads, and yet there is something still quite compelling and distinctive about the voice even when other aspects of the books come to seem carelessly put-together). It seems clear that patent insanity (presumably passed off from the series-writer to a protagonist--sometimes a first-person narrator, sometimes not--who's basically a stand-in for herself) is part of what makes a series compelling and sustainable.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Pam Noles has written an amazing essay

about race and science fiction/fantasy, prompted in particular by the heavy dependence on white actors in television adaptation of Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea books (whose characters are mostly brown). Here's the link for the essay, "Shame", and I've pasted in the first few paragraphs to give you a taste:

Back then there was UHF and VHF, and you had to manipulate two different dials on the tv to make the channels come in. That's where they put 'Star Trek' and 'Space: 1999,' and on weekend afternoons ran movies like 'Colossus: The Forbin Project.' On Saturday nights The Ghoul would take over, a spazz in a lab coat and shock of frizzy blond wig, showing 'Voyage the to Bottom of the Sea' but with added sound effects of flushing toilets. In between, he'd take his puppet friend Froggy and stuff him into a huge vat of SPAM, maybe, then blow the whole thing up. Over on one of the regular channels, late Friday night belonged to Houlihan and Big Chuck, who mostly showed horror movies. In between scenes they ran skits about 'Soulman', the black superhero, or about 'a certain ethnic' who loved polka, or a woman named Bertha Butt, whose butt was so big it could catch the rain. After Houlihan found God and went to Florida, Big Chuck was joined by Little John. A new skit was added: 'Fallacy Island,' with Little John as Cuckoo and Big John as Mr. Roarke. Little John also made a great caveman, and with a blonde wig he was the cutest little girl with a beard you've ever seen.

Usually it would be just me in the basement sprawled on the floor surrounded by snacks, Legos and books to read during the commercials. If he was off shift, sometimes Dad would come down and join me in his leather recliner by the stairs. Every once in a while Mom called down from the kitchen Are you letting her watch those weird things? And we'd lie in unison, No.

If she came down to check for herself, Dad would get in trouble.

Dad had his own names for the movies.

What's this? 'Escape to a White Planet?

It's called 'When Worlds Collide.' I'm sure I sounded indignant.

'Mars Kills the White People.' I love this one.

Daaaaad. It says it right there. 'War of the Worlds'. I know I sighed heavily, but was careful to turn back to the tv before rolling my eyes.

Once he asked me which was more real, the movie or the skits between. I didn't get it, and told him that they were both stories, so they were both fake. He didn't bring it up again until a skit came on. I can't remember if it was a 'Soulman' skit or one of the caveman gags (the cavemen were multicultural — basic white, Polish, Italian, and black). But I remember Dad saying, how come you never see anybody like that in the stories you like? And I remember answering, maybe they didn't have black people back then. He said there's always been black people. I said but black people can't be wizards and space people and they can't fight evil, so they can't be in the story. When he didn't say anything back I turned around. He was in full recline mode in his chair and he was very still, looking at me. He didn't say anything else.

And here's a good post by Nalo Hopkinson on the Earthsea matter and related topics.

(Thanks to Neil Gaiman for the link.)

Thursday, January 12, 2006

I expect everyone's absolutely sick of this whole Frey thing by now

but my friend Seth Mnookin has
a very sensible piece up at Slate about the whole mess, in which he reflects on the culture and motives that drive addicts to exaggerate or fabricate past offences:

Based on all the evidence, it seems Frey's weird, macho fear of seeing himself as a "victim" led him to fabricate a life that was painful and extreme enough so as to explain the sadness and despair he felt. Instead of a crack-binging street fighter, ostracized by both his peers and society, the Smoking Gun investigation indicates Frey was more likely a lonely, confused boy who may or may not have needed ear surgery as a child and felt distant from his parents and alienated from his peers. He drank too much, did some drugs, got nailed for a couple of DUIs and ended up, at age 23, in one of the country's most prestigious drug-and-alcohol treatment centers. When Frey writes that, after one of his fictitious arrests, he hated himself, saw no future, and wanted to die, I believe him. I grew up in a well-off suburban household with loving parents and no clear traumas in my past. I was popular enough in high school, I joined the newspaper and acted in plays, and I got into a good college. I was also miserably, sometimes almost suicidally, depressed, and, from the age of 15, I was taking drugs and drinking almost every day. Frey must have felt that his real, very scary, and very lonely feelings would have seemed weak if it was only preceded by standard-issue suburban teenage angst.

And here's Seth's essay on life after heroin, which is also well worth reading.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Fighting words

Elif Batuman is now officially my favorite up-and-coming writer to watch in 2006, she's got a fantastic essay on Muay Thai champion Bunkerd Faphimai and the charms of kick-boxing in this week's New Yorker (not online). Put this in the next Best American Essays! It's great, informative and interesting and full of appealingly wry asides; it's very funny and likeable, do read it if you haven't already.

Batuman's great essay about Franco Moretti's Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (published in the third issue of n+1) is currently up at the n+1 website (not a permanent link, but it may be subsequently available on the sidebar). I read Moretti's book the other night and pretty much loved it, with some reservations--I'm going to contribute something slightly-more-essay-like-than-a-blog-entry to the Moretti discussion organized by Jonathan Goodwin at the Valve, and will link when it's there. (Which means I have to write it first. BTW that link includes PDFs of the articles that make up Moretti's book; I particularly recommend Trees, which seems to me the most interesting from a literary-critical as opposed to literary-historical point of view--some great stuff about free indirect discourse, about which more anon....)

I don't know what it is about kick-boxing but the idea of it exerts an irresistible appeal (Batuman starts spending all her free time at the gym, "drawn by the universal pleasure of kicking and punching one's fellow-man," and that phrase pretty much nails it). Actually I am determined that I really am going to learn how to do this stuff in 2006, it's my resolution--I have been on a for-me-extreme-though-for-the-athletically-inclined-fairly-moderate fitness regimen (in truth my neck and shoulders now seem sort of scarily muscley, not sure what I think about this) and when I move back to NY in May I am going to do something better than the probably lame (tell me otherwise if you know better) cardio kickboxing class at the Columbia gym. E-mail me/leave a note in the comments if you can recommend some good option conveniently accessible from Morningside Heights (i.e. either walking distance or near 1/9 train). Kickboxing seems the most appealing but I would be open to the possibility of some other kicking-and-punching-type martial art. I seem to know a lot of people who do yoga but I think I am peaceful enough in my daily life, I would like to take up something more argumentative and aggressive.

I do love the New Yorker, it must be the best value-for-money reading material in America; I almost always race through the whole issue as soon as I get it, though this has been disrupted by Cambridge mailing delays (and also I'm afraid I rarely read the fiction, though I make an exception for Haruki Murakami, George Saunders and a few others). There's a bunch of other especially good stuff in this issue, including a good piece by Steven Shapin about William Leith's food-addiction memoir and an incredibly depressing but gripping article by Eric Konigsberg about the death of a gifted child. The reporter remains tactfully non-judgmental except at one point when he's visiting with a gifted-child therapist and her husband in Colorado and the husband ("a psychic and a healer," as his wife describes him, plus the descendant of a grandfather who was a kabbalist rabbi and a father who used to heal sick babies with kosher salt) describes the fourteen-year-old boy who killed himself--and whose parents now think it may have been meant to be so that his organs could be donated to help others--as "an angel who came down to experience the physical realm for a short period of time":

I asked Hilton how he knew this. He paused, and for a moment I wondered if he was pulling my leg and trying to think up something even more outlandish to say next. 'I'm talking him right now,' he said. 'He's become a teacher. He says right now he's actually being taught how to help these people who experience suicides for much messier reasons. Before Brandenn was born, this was planned. And he did it the way he did so that others would have use for his body. Everything worked out in the end.'

Don't get me wrong, I am completely in favor of organ donation and there is no doubt that if someone you loves dies violently the thought of their organs having saved other people's lives is possibly the greatest consolation imaginable. But seriously....